Commentary

The best goalies from every NHL decade

Updated: March 18, 2009, 6:10 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Jacques Lemaire has coached them both, although, in one instance, it was to a very limited extent.

He saw Patrick Roy get his first career victory with Montreal in 1985 and was at least paying attention as Roy eventually became the NHL's best goaltender of the 1990s.

Lemaire got to see more of Martin Brodeur, including when they both raised the Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 1995, but Lemaire has been coaching the Wild while Brodeur has laid claim to being the best of the 2000s -- or whatever you want to call the decade.

Marty's Milestones

Martin Brodeur's elbow injury might have postponed his chase toward history, but he finally attained goaltending immortality with a 3-2 victory over the Blackhawks on Tuesday. Now, only Terry Sawchuck's shutout mark remains.

NHL Goalie Victories
1. Martin Brodeur 553
2. Patrick Roy 551
3. Ed Belfour 484
4. Curtis Joseph 451
5. Terry Sawchuk 447

NHL Goaltender Shutouts
1. Terry Sawchuk 103
2. Martin Brodeur 101
3. George Hainsworth 94
4. Glenn Hall 84
5. Jacques Plante 82

-- ESPN.com research

• All-time wins list | 300 winners

On the night Brodeur collected his 550th career regular-season victory and moved to within one of Roy, Lemaire shrugged and politely said he wasn't paying much attention to the chase.

"No, no, no," the Wild coach said, "I don't follow that. You've got the wrong guy for records."

What he meant was, it's all about the team, whether the Wild or anyone else.

But that's part of this, since the victory is the one standard for goaltenders that might have undergone alteration over the years, with an increased number of games in a season and the adoption of overtime and then the shootout. Yet it's as basic as the bottom line: Did his team win?

In 1984, as he got a training-camp look at a young draft choice from the Granby Bison and assessed his butterfly style, Lemaire, the former Canadiens star who was about to embark on what would be his only full season as the Montreal coach, was prompted to sarcastically ask Roy, "You want a pillow?"

After Roy spent most of the season with Granby, he got his chance in Montreal on Feb. 23, 1985. The Canadiens were tied at 4 with Winnipeg after two periods. Doug Soetaert had been shaky in goal, and Lemaire announced in the dressing room (in English): "Roy, get in the net." Roy turned to teammate Guy Carbonneau and asked (in French): "Did he just mention my name?"

Carbonneau said, "Yeah, you're going in."

Roy played the third period and stopped the only two shots he faced. The Canadiens won 6-4, and the 19-year-old goaltender had collected career victory No. 1 ... of 551. It was the only one he would ever earn under Lemaire.

In 1995, Lemaire got to raise the Stanley Cup again -- but this was his first and only time as a coach -- after a young Brodeur helped lead the New Jersey Devils to a four-game Cup finals blitz of the Red Wings.

"Brodeur is a guy who can handle pressure as much as anyone I know," Lemaire said. "When you have that kind of goaltender, you're in good shape. Your team and your organization is in good shape."

And Roy?

"He was as good and he was giving his team a chance to win every night, when he first started and all the way through his career," Lemaire said.

So who's better?

You have to judge them against, and in the context of, their own eras. That phrase works with almost anything, whether it's the relative merits of The Who, Aerosmith and The Dave Matthews Band ... or goaltenders.

Brodeur's and Roy's careers overlapped for 10 seasons, or roughly half of Roy's stay in the league and two-thirds of Brodeur's tenure to date with the Devils. So it comes down to a definition of terms, not only about which goaltender was the best of the era, but also about whether they are of the same era, period.

If they're thrown in the same era -- a perfectly reasonable stance -- it will be a continuing debate, with no "right" answer. The verdict would be a tough call; as in any of these either/or debates, the overreaction to it is that you're trashing the other.

There's a way to dodge it altogether, though, and that's by taking it by the decades from the NHL's 1917 inception onward.

Roy was the best of the 1990s. It's a tough call, because Dominik Hasek won the Vezina Trophy five times to Roy's two nods, and the score was the same for first-team postseason All-Star selections. But Roy won 310 regular-season games to Hasek's 261, and helped lead a team to the Cup for the second and third times of his career. Brodeur has been the best of the 2000s. That's no contest.

Ken Dryden
Steve Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesKen Dryden helped the Montreal Canadiens win six Stanley Cups in the 1970s.

And going back:

Pre-1920s: Georges Vezina
This is a bit of a trick, perhaps, because the NHL had only a handful of teams and played such a limited schedule in its first two seasons, but Vezina had been a star in the old NHA and carried over that success to the new league.

The 1920s: Clint Benedict
Before he became the first goalie to wear a mask in games (briefly, in 1930), he was on four Stanley Cup winners -- the Ottawa Senators in 1920, 1921 and 1923 and the Montreal Maroons in 1926 -- and twice had four shutouts in the playoffs. He had 163 regular-season wins in the 1920s.

The 1930s: George Hainsworth
He burst on the scene in the late 1920s, getting 22 shutouts in 44 regular-season games in 1928-29 and winning the Vezina Trophy for the third consecutive time that season. But in the '30s, he had 170 victories and won two Stanley Cups with the Canadiens.

The 1940s: Turk Broda
The short guy few called "Walter" lost two seasons to military service during World War II, and the Maple Leafs won the Cup in one of them. But during the decade, he still helped lead Toronto to the championship four other times and compiled 203 regular-season victories.

The 1950s: Terry Sawchuk
One of the reasons he was able to set the record that stood for so long was that he was great from the start, earning 291 wins in his first 10 seasons after joining the Red Wings in 1949-50. With him in the net, Detroit won the Stanley Cup three times during the decade. Jacques Plante was also terrific for the Canadiens in the latter half of the decade, winning 185 games and the Vezina four times, but Sawchuk gets the nod.

The 1960s: Glenn Hall
A tough call over eventual St. Louis Blues teammate Plante, but Hall had more wins in the applicable years -- 261 to 203 -- and won the Cup with the Blackhawks in 1961. Both had also been first-team All-Stars twice in the '50s, to Sawchuk's three times.

The 1970s: Ken Dryden
His career was confined to this decade, so his lack of huge aggregate numbers isn't an issue. Despite missing a complete season, he won a stunning 258 games, playing with -- among others -- veteran center Jacques Lemaire. Dryden won or shared the Vezina Trophy five times and also was a first-team All-Star five times. Yes, those were great teams, but he was the best there was.

The 1980s: Billy Smith
Another tough one: Smith or Grant Fuhr? Fuhr won the Vezina once, had 211 regular-season victories and was on four Cup winners. Smith, statistically "hampered" to an extent because he was so often splitting time, had 192 wins. The Isles had the dynastic run from 1980 to 1983 and Smith won the Conn Smythe once. Each player was also a first-team All-Star once. Smith, in a close call.

And then came Roy and Brodeur.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."