On Monday night, Martin Brodeur made a terrific pass to David Clarkson to send him in on a breakaway, which Clarkson finished off against Boston goalie Tim Thomas. With the assist Brodeur moved up to tie Ed Belfour for sixth place all-time in goalie assists with 34.
Brodeur is considered by many to be the best puckhandling goalie of all-time, and his ability to start the breakout with passes has been a strength to the teams he has played on (with the possible exception of the 2010 Canadian Olympic team, but everyone has off-days). Assists are what attract a lot of attention for goalies, but there is a lot more to handling the puck than the scoresheet implies. Consistently assisting the team move the puck 180 feet down the ice will help contribute to winning the game, but the eventual goal usually comes on a follow-up play or after a subsequent turnover or after several teammates have touched the puck. Nevertheless some goalies score a lot more assists than others, which suggests that it is at least partially representative of a goalie’s puckhandling skill. That raises the question: Is Martin Brodeur the best goalie playmaker ever?
Here is the all-time top 10 list for goalie assists:
RK Goalie Games Played Assists Assists Per Game
1. Tom Barrasso 777 48 .062
2. Patrick Roy 1029 45 .044
3. Grant Fuhr 868 40 .046
4. Mike Vernon 781 39 .050
5. John Vanbiesbrouck 882 38 .043
6. Ed Belfour 963 34 .035
7. Martin Brodeur 1064 34 .032
8. Ron Hextall 608 32 .053
9. Curtis Joseph 943 31 .033
10. Dan Bouchard 655 29 .044
Somewhat surprisingly Brodeur has the lowest assists per game rate of any of the top 10 goalies. However, he and Curtis Joseph are the only two goalies on the list that did not play a game in the 1980s (and Joseph’s NHL debut was on January 2, 1990). Combining this observation with the fact that the ‘80s were a high-scoring decade suggests there are underlying era effects.
The correlation coefficient between league scoring levels and goalie assists over the last 41 NHL seasons is 0.69, suggesting a strong relationship. Looking at a breakdown by decade, it is apparent that goalies became much more involved with handling the puck over the 1970s and especially 1980s. The latter decade had the highest number of goalie assists and the highest ratio of goalie assists to total goals:
Decade Assists Total Goals Assisted By A Goalie
1960s 39 15,109 0.26%
1970s 292 41,615 0.70%
1980s 651 64,105 1.02%
1990s 595 60,607 0.98%
2000s 500 60,600 0.83%
Interestingly the rate of goalie assists has fallen in the past decade. This does not appear to be related to the goalie trapezoid rule change, as the rate of goalie assists post-lockout has actually been higher than it was between 1999-00 and 2003-04.
There are two adjustments that can be used to reduce the era effects. The scoring numbers can be normalized by comparing their production against the number of assists that an average goalie would be expected to score in the same amount of playing time. This adjusts for different league scoring levels, but it does not take into account the strength of any specific team. Grant Fuhr holds the single season goalie scoring record with 14 assists in 1983-84, a mark he never would have achieved without playing on the same team as a prime Wayne Gretzky and a prime Paul Coffey. Expressing assists as a percentage of the total goals scored by the goalie’s team (adjusted for their playing time) will help adjust for the difference between Fuhr leaving pucks behind the net for Coffey and Ron Low leaving pucks for Joe Cirella.
Here are these two statistics for the top 10 goalies, ranked by assists per team goal.
RK Goalie Assists Per Team Goal Assists Average %Difference
1. Ron Hextall 0.91% 32 20.6 +55%
2. Martin Brodeur 0.88% 34 23.9 +42%
3. Patrick Roy 0.83% 45 30.8 +46%
4. Ed Belfour 0.78% 34 25.4 +34%
5. Tom Barrasso 0.77% 48 26.5 +81%
6. John Vanbiesbrouck 0.69% 38 27.3 +39%
7. Mike Vernon 0.68% 39 25.1 +55%
8. Dan Bouchard 0.66% 29 19.0 +53%
9. Curtis Joseph 0.65% 31 24.0 +29%
10. Grant Fuhr 0.63% 40 28.5 +40%
Brodeur moves up to second place on the list behind leader Ron Hextall. It is also no surprise to see Ed Belfour and Tom Barrasso in the top 5, making this list a better match with conventional wisdom. Barrasso ranks the highest compared to average, but he had the advantage of playing on some high-powered offensive teams throughout his career (including several seasons with the aforementioned Coffey, who may have been more likely to create assists for his goalie than any other player over the past three decades). The most unexpected result is probably that Patrick Roy was able to pick up so many assists. Roy liked to play the puck a lot and made some good plays, but was at the same time very prone to turning the puck over. This shows the downside of measuring assists only, as it does not capture the error rate. It is very likely that overall Roy’s puckhandling was significantly less valuable than that of the other four.
There were a number of goalies with very good rate stats that have not had the career longevity to appear in the top 10, with three that were particularly notable:
Goalie Assists Per Team Goal Assists Average %Difference
Marty Turco 1.09% 22 10.8 +103%
Mike Palmateer 1.07% 25 10.9 +107%
Rick Dipietro 0.96% 16 6.7 +140%
Mike Palmateer is a bit of a surprise, but Turco and Dipietro are both recognized for their ability to play the puck.
The fact that the goalies discussed in this post are rated so far above average suggests that many goalies rarely get assists. Here are some of the active goalies who are least likely to be involved in a scoring play, let’s call them the anti-Brodeurs:
Goalie Games Played Assists
Brian Boucher 268 2
Tim Thomas 259 2
Niklas Backstrom 220 2
Cristobal Huet 271 3
Andrew Raycroft 248 3
Chris Mason 244 3
Henrik Lundqvist 327 4
Martin Brodeur is probably not the best playmaking goalie ever. Ron Hextall was involved in a higher percentage of his team’s goals, Tom Barrasso has a much better scoring record relative to league average, and contemporaries Marty Turco and Rick DiPietro are both at least as good if not better at racking up assists. However, there is more to playing the puck than scoring. Consistently making the play and minimizing turnovers are also important. This will likely remain a subjective debate since it is difficult if not impossible to fully evaluate this skill through statistics, but when discussing the best puck-moving netminders ever Brodeur is certainly in the conversation.
Philip Myrland is an author of Puck Prospectus and runs the statistical hockey website Brodeur Is A Fraud. You can contact him at BrodeurIsAFraud@Inbox.com.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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