It's About That Time Again To Question The Goaltending

If it's anything short of the Stanley Cup (and it always is) Vancouver's goaltending will be called into question. I don't know how many knives will be pointed at Roberto Luongo this summer, but it's not like we haven't seen him called into question before. Ready for some memory lane?

Rewind the tape to Game Five of the Canucks/Ducks in 2007: Rob Niedermayer goes in with a high hit, Luongo is busy trying to get the refs attention and misses the GWG, Ducks win and move on. Luongo said then:

Obviously I made a mistake there and it cost us the game. Right now, everything is surreal. Obviously, I'm disappointed because our season is over. I didn't feel like I deserved the season to be over. I wanted to keep going. I think it's going to hit harder when I wake up in the next day or two and I have nothing to do.

However 2007 were the glory days. Luongo played fantastic that first season and definitely against Turco and Dallas in the first round. We loved his drive. He said all the right things. With such a terrible string of goaltenders before him anyway (Sorry Alex Auld) we could give the guy a pass.

In 2008 Vancouver missed the playoffs for several reasons, but all eyes were back on Luongo. Remember this was the year he raised some eyebrows by skipping the All Star Game, flew back to Florida before a key game against the Wild, fought off "he wants to go back East" rumors and admitted fatigue. Our ever brilliant analysis at the time:

Between March 21 and April 3, 2008, Lui's numbers sunk to Cloutier-esque proportions: 1 win, 6 losses, 3.67 GAA, .874 Save %. Granted they mailed in their final performance against Calgary, but when asked to assess his 3 goals on 8 shot performance, he said "I tried to bring it, but obviously I didn't have anything left in the tank. I don't care, honestly. The season ended Thursday. It doesn't matter whether I started or not, all right?"

OK, he was a little grumpy. Chalk it up to the sophomore slump!

2009 he fought off that groin injury and lead the Canucks to their first ever post season sweep against St. Louis. In the following round Chicago schooled him for 21 goals in five games and with his contract coming up for renewal  his obituary then brought up the cost vs benefit discussion:

The winning goaltenders of the Stanley Cup since the last time a "franchise" goaltender — Martin Brodeur in 2003 — backstopped the victorious team have been Khabibulin, Ward, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Osgood, who has won two Cups already and could make it three this spring. Among the losing finalists’ goalies have been Dwayne Roloson and Ray Emery.  The point is, there are plenty of ways to skin a cat in today’s NHL that do not involve tying up $8 million in the goaltending position. And most of the successful teams out there in playoff land have found the way. 

That discussion ended quickly with the 12 year, 64-million-dollar deal Gillis stamped before the start of the 2010 season. But that season Luongo would be pulled eight times and had the worst March numbers of his career, stumbling into the playoffs and leading some to "analyze" which goalie would suck worse in the opening round. After Chicago showed Vancouver the door again, the questions then became about the captaincy and flirted with his mental makeup.

That puts us at the beginning of this season. Thanks to Cory Schneider, Luongo could be spelled on a regular basis which helped him finish with his best numbers as a Canuck (.928 SV%, 2.11 GAA). The duo won the Jennings Trophy. But just like the team in front of him, the playoffs introduced some bi-polar results: 17 goals in 7 games in the first round, 9 goals in six games in the second, 13 in five games in the third and finally 20 goals in 7 games against Boston. The guy brought Vancouver within 60 minutes of the Cup and two days later, should he actually read the newspapers, gets to see this:

...But Luongo is framed as the scapegoat and it's deja Lu. More concerning, it doesn't feel like this is ever going to change.

Instead, it feels both consuming and toxic. It's not healthy for the fans, and it can't be healthy for Luongo. He is regularly asked about things like the crowds in Rogers Arena who, it was reported, cheered when he was pulled from games in Boston. His teammates are regularly asked if they've lost faith in him.

Can he go through this year after year, playoffs after playoffs in Vancouver? Can the fans? Can his teammates? Can anyone?

You get the rhythm. September through April we love him and by June we want him jettisoned into a lunar crater. Sunrise, sunset.

This isn't unique to Luongo of course, but of any big ticket athlete in any sport. Some of the hatred towards Luongo (and it is hatred) is understandable. He's been propped up as an elite netminder so often that it would naturally draw criticism. He puts his foot in his mouth as you saw with the above "I don't care honestly" and his tire pumping exchange with Thomas. He exaggerates many of the battles in front of him; some he legitimately gets punished and others he's up for an Emmy in the "I've been shot by a sniper" category. Hell let's admit even the hairstyle is a lightning rod which is saying something for a sport that gave humanity the mullet.

If you go the numbers route, he's a harder goalie to dislike. Next season he'll easily pass Kirk McLean for the most goalie wins in franchise history. If you put aside save percentage variables by era, his career numbers are similar to Brodeur's. He's ranked 12th for most games played dating back to 1987, ahead of Mike Richter, Felix Potvin and other notables. He's tied for the 9th best career playoff SV% dating back to 1918 (take a gander at #1 while you're there). His playoff trends for Vancouver turned in the right direction after three years of going in reverse:

Season Wins GA SA SV% GAA Playoff Rank
2006-07 5 25 427 .941 1.77 3 of 22 SV%, 4 of 22 GAA
2008-09 6 26 304 .914 2.52 14 of 25 SV%, 12 of 25 GAA
2009-10 6 38 362 .895 3.22 16 of 27 SV%, 20 of 27 GAA
2010-11 15 61 711 .914 2.56 12 of 25 SV%, 12 of 25 GAA

But...there's always a but. For the fourth post season, he imploded in critical games. Some of that is because of the team in front of him (Game Four in Chicago), some is all on him (Game Six in Boston). You do it one season, it sucks. You make a trend out of it and people notice. At this point why would the Bruins, Blackhawks or anyone else ever think they're out of a game with Luongo in net? He can be rattled and, often, he does it on his own.

All of this leads to questions about trading Luongo, especially with Schneider ready to take the next step. It's a fruitless gesture in a sense because of that boat anchor of a contract. I don't know if magicians have awards, but Gillis would be deserving of their hall of fame if he offloaded that contract he constructed which even the NHL head office barely tolerates. Even if somehow he was moved, who's to say Schneider wouldn't fold under the same pressure? Many teams would kill to have "the Luongo problem." Keep in mind it was around this time last year the Bruins were looking at Tuukka Rask to take over for a slumping Thomas. You can never tell, but knowing this team's luck, it's hardly a stretch to imagine Luongo being traded and strolling straight into a Cup with his new team.

This summer is shaping up no different than the rest. Those who hate Luongo fill their arsenal with a few more reasons to chop him down. His defenders have a rebound season, some better numbers and visions of Luongo's Game Five against San Jose to help them weather the storm. Perhaps you're like me and land somewhere in the middle: not his biggest fan - his flopping especially - but far from an enemy. Personally, I've grown accustomed to being confused by him. Especially with that contract, it's a reality I can't fight so better to own it. It's my warm blanket now. As long as his YouTube library of gaffes keeps pace with his highlight reel of jawdropping saves he's earned and will remain the ambiguous case study that he is.

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