Let me start off by saying that I’m a huge Roberto Luongo fan. When Dave Nonic first engineered the deal to bring Bobby Lou to Vancouver, I thought, “Holy Hannah, we’re going to win a Stanley Cup.” Sure, we had to blow up the West Coast Express to get him – but a post-Steve Moore Bertuzzi for Luongo? Brilliant. Especially considering the awful taste Dan “Beachball” Cloutier left in the mouths of devout Canucks fans, it was a red-letter day indeed. And wouldn’t you know it, since he arrived, the Canucks have been a legitimate threat to come out of the west in three out of four years.
This year, though, was different. The Canucks were tapped by many a pundit to go far in these playoffs, but with the asterisk, “in spite of the play of Roberto Luongo”. In spite of. When was the last time a club won in spite of their best player? As much as I love the guy, I have to admit: maybe the goalie-as-captain undertaking needs to come to an end.
With Vancouver facing elimination in game five this year, Luongo did several unthinkables. He shaved his playoff beard. He ditched the media scrum. He did what goalies are supposed to do: he concentrated on the game. Captains can’t do that. They’re supposed to bear the crush of pre-game media; they’re supposed to let the rest of the guys focus on their prep. Captains are supposed to carry the load while the bench loosens up. Sure, he stank the joint up in the second half of game six, but for four periods – game 5 in Chicago and the first period back at GM Place – he was Holy Hannah Luongo.
Do you think Jaroslav Halak would be stoning the Caps and Pens if he had to do a couple hours of daily pre-game media? In fact, the opposite is true; the only reason we knew he was getting the game start over Carey Price was because he refuses to talk to media when he’s starting that night’s game.
Luongo as captain made sense in so many ways. He’s the most marketable player on a team in a hockey-mad market. His name is bandied about whenever “Best Goalie in the World” is the topic of conversation. He’s the top-paid player on the team. His are the top-selling jerseys at the Canucks Store. He’s an intense, passionate, win-at-all-cost kinda guy. He’s a gold-medal-winning goaltender, for crying out loud. But perhaps there’s a reason the NHL went 61 years between captains who played goal. This year’s stats are one easy way of seeing the cons to this little experiment.
Just one year ago, Luongo recorded seven shutouts in 54 games. This year, he threw just four doughnuts in 68 – his career-low as a number one goaltender. Last year, Alain Vigneault pulled the All-Star netminder from just one contest. Luongo was pulled from seven games this year – and one more in the playoffs – as he had his worst goals against average since he came from Florida. And his save percentage this season is the lowest he’s posted since his rookie year on Long Island. He lost his posts and composure with equal frequency, and fell apart at key times instead of making the big save the team needed more often than I care to count.
Some will argue these stats have more to do with the amount of play – it’s an Olympic year, they say – but Luongo has always been a workhorse. His best year for save percentage came in Florida in 2003-4, when he played 72 regular season games. Others will point to a weakened defensive core, and that point is valid. But when we see he scored seven shutouts with those same woeful, playoff-missing Panthers, when we see just how shaky he has looked all season, we have to wonder if Willie Mitchell’s absence has been the biggest problem Vancouver’s had between the pipes.
This doesn’t even touch the psychological effect a team must undergo when their captain is sitting on the bench. How massive a blow would it be to Detroit if Mike Babcock benched Nicklas Lidstrom? Could you imagine anything but injury forcing Sidney Crosby from his regular shift? To paraphrase Tom Larscheid, as Luongoes, so go the Canucks. If he’s sitting on the bench in shame, who shoulders the load?
With apologies to Richard Brodeur and Kirk McLean, Roberto Luongo is the best goaltender in Canucks history. And on Sunday, when he put aside all the extra-curricular activities that captaincy requires, he played like the best goaltender in Canucks history. He did the real job that Roberto Luongo is supposed to do: he stopped the puck. Coming back to GM Place on Tuesday, where expectations rest squarely on the back of the guy with the C on his jersey – sorry, the C on his mask – he gave up five goals for the third straight home start.
It’s not a matter of win or lose any more. The Canucks lost. In embarrassing fashion. For the second consecutive year. And sadly, they did not lose in spite of the play of Roberto Luongo.
The Canucks have to seriously look at putting the weight of that C on someone else’s shoulders.