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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Canucks - The Luongo Question?

Of course, the question that I am referring to is whether Roberto Luongo will be able to consistently play solid hockey and assist the Canucks in winning the Stanley Cup this year. Based on his stats over the last three years and what I have witnessed in the many Canuck games that I have seen, I have to say “no, unfortunately Luongo will continue to fall short.” Let’s take a look at some statistics (many will surprise you) and I will also discuss last year’s Stanley Cup Finals, the rematch earlier this month in Boston, back-up goalie Cory Schneider, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, and how other goalies in the league compare to Luongo.      

In the 2009-2010 season Luongo did not play that well all things considered. His Goals Against Average (GAA) was high at 2.57 and his Save Percentage was not overly impressive at .913. In fact about 15 starting goalies had a better Save Percentage! Luongo registered just 4 shutouts and there were 12 goalies in the league who posted more than him, and 6 others who tied him at 4. This entirely average season for a goalie in the NHL somehow convinced the Vancouver Canucks that he was more valuable than a chest full of gold and diamonds because they decided to bestow upon him a long-term contract that would make him the second highest paid player in the league! In 2010-2011 he was paid more than 10 MILLION dollars! Sinking that much money into an average player is not only tough on the organization but also on the other players. Now, let’s examine Luongo’s stats for this past season and compare him to other goaltenders.

Last year, undeniably, Luongo had the best regular season team in hockey in front of him, the President’s Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks. With an awesome team in front of Luongo and his promoted and professed talent, you would think that he would have posted a good number of shutouts and some other extremely impressive stats. However, once again he only ended-up with only 4 shutouts for the entire year which was just good enough for a tie for 14th in the league along with 5 other goalies in the Shutouts category. His Save Percentage was .928, which gave him 4th place among goaltenders in that category, and his GAA was very respectable at 2.11 but you have to consider that the Canuck team was playing incredibly well and were taking away a lot of quality scoring chances.

Who was better than Luongo last year? Well, several goalies were actually better if you examine all of the facts. Obviously, Tim Thomas was the best goalie in the league and he proved it with a .938 Save Percentage, 9 big shutouts, a 2.00 GAA and also by having a huge impact on his teammates—enough impact to carry them through to win the Stanley Cup. Thomas earned 6 million for his efforts (as compared to Luongo’s 10 million), and his salary dropped to 5 million for the current year and will drop yet again to 3 million for the 2012-2013 season. Another goaltender who was easily better than Luongo was Pekka Rinne from the Nashville Predators, and he proved that in the regular season as well as in the playoffs. He had a better Save Percentage than Luongo at .930, 2 more Shutouts as compared to Luongo (6 in total), and a GAA at 2.12 (almost identical to Luongo’s). When the two teams met head to head in the playoffs Rinne showed that he was far better than Luongo and Rinne and company took the Canucks to 6 games, all decided by only one goal except Game 4 which was decided by two goals due to an empty netter.

Rinne was outstanding during that series and he was the 1st Star in two games and the 2nd Star in another. Rinne’s salary was about 3.4 million last year, only about one-third of what Luongo made. Too bad life isn’t always fair. Another goalie who was easily better than Luongo last year was Henrik Lundqvist on the Rangers. He had a whopping 11 shutouts, a Save Percentage of .923 and a GAA of 2.28. He did not have near as much support from his teammates as Luongo did and he made about 200 more saves during the year as compared to Luongo. Carey Price from the Canadiens was also a better goaltender last year and he had 8 shutouts (double of what Luongo had), a Save Percentage of .923 and a GAA of 2.35. He made about 355 more saves than Luongo and only Cam Ward of the Hurricanes had more saves last year. One could rightfully argue that Cory Schneider (Luongo’s goaltending partner) also had a better year since his Save Percentage was slightly better than Luongo, and in fact I do think he was more reliable and he was better on the road. There were some other goalies last year who I believe played better than Luongo but they were on teams who did not provide as much support and subsequently their numbers were not quite as good.

2011-2012 SEASON

Now, let us examine Luongo’s play this year because it will confirm the answer to “The Luongo Question.”

So far this year Luongo has a GAA of 2.39 and a Save Percentage of .918, both numbers significantly worse than last year. He also only has 2 shutouts which just keeps him at pace with the poor shutout stats of 4 for the two previous years. As one who has seen him play often, I must say that he lets in far too many easy goals and when you do that you simply cannot register that many shutouts, despite great support from teammates. It really boggles my mind that the coaches can’t sit down with him and watch tapes to show him that he often goes down when he should be on his feet. Additionally, he has problems in holding onto his stick, and this year I think he has averaged dropping it at least once a game. Like any other fan it agitates me because it is a problem that an NHL goalie should not have, especially a guy that has pretty big hands (at 6’3 and 217 lbs they can’t be small). The way I see it Luongo is not improving and that his best career year might be last year’s record, a record that largely reflects an outstanding regular season effort by his teammates.

On the other hand, Cory Schneider has improved his play this year and he is easily outdoing Luongo. Schneider has moved up to 6th in the Save Percentage category with a .927, has 2 shutouts in 19 games and a GAA of 2.30. Canuck fans have reason for hope to win the Stanly Cup this year but only if management does not try to overplay Luongo just because he is making the huge salary. When playoff time comes around I would play the goalie who performs best during the season, and particularly at the end of the season; and, if he has a bad game then start the other guy next game. Tell the two up front what the situation will be and see who wants to earn the spot. Forget about who is making more money. Schneider played better on the road last year and he continues to play well on the road, and that should be considered as well. Schneider could be played on the road if Luongo meets another team that causes him to collapse mentally. Does anyone recall—yes I know you will—last year in the Stanley Cup finals when Game 5 was played in Vancouver and Luongo came up with his best lifetime performance, helping the Canucks to a 1-0 victory over the Bruins? And, do you also remember that the two previous games were in Boston and the Bruins won by scores of 8-1 and 4-0? Luongo had let in 12 goals in about 5 periods of hockey! The entire world could see that Luongo had a major mental problem in playing in Boston, and yet, when Game 6 came back to Boston, Canuck coach Alain Vigneault made the foolish mistake of starting Luongo in net. Vigneault also knew that Schneider had played well all year on the road. Well, the Canucks lost Game 6 by a score of 5-2, and then lost Game 7 at home by a score of 4-0. Too bad!

What if Vigneault had played Schneider in Game 6 in Boston? Well, this year on January 7th the Canucks rolled into Boston for a rematch and Vigneault decided to play Schneider in net. Luongo had stated that he wanted to play but Vigneault decided on Schneider. I wonder why he made that decision? Maybe in his heart he wanted Schneider to lose so that he could be justified for not starting him in Boston in Game 6 of the finals last year? Maybe it would help him sleep better for the rest of his life? Whatever the case, Schneider and the entire team rose to the occasion and came out with a 4-3 victory in a game that was full of dirty play by the Bruins. Notably, Brad Marchand of the Bruins was thrown out and later fined and suspended for “clipping” Sami Salo—hitting him at knee level and lifting him over top and onto his head. Salo suffered a concussion and should be returning to the line-up this coming week after the All-Star game.  

So, if Vigneault had played Schneider in Game 6 last year the Canucks might be the reining Stanley Cup Champions rather than having to live through life with the bad memory. Will Vigneault get a chance in the playoffs to show us that he has learned his lesson?

You know, I can’t help back share something about Luongo in the Finals last year. After Game 5 in Vancouver when Luongo and the Canucks won 1-0, Luongo celebrated the game with great pride as if he had won the Stanley Cup. He played his hockey stick like a guitar (“rock and roll” to your own shame Lu!) and then he did something that I utterly detest—he threw his stick into the stands! Throwing his stick was an extremely dangerous thing to do with a high risk of a fan being injured, including perhaps severe damage to someone’s eye or even blindness—seriously. If there are any players reading this, please, please, please don’t throw your stick up into the stands! Hand the stick to a person who you want to give it to but never throw it up into the stands. Not only can it cause injury but also fights. I watched the people battle for Luongo’s stick when he threw it up and why would he want fans fighting each other? He knew damn well that people would fight for it! Anyway, as I stated, Luongo celebrated the victory with great pride and egotism; and, as soon as I saw it I said to myself:  Boston is going to win the Cup”—and they did. I thought that Vancouver had a chance if Schneider was given the nod for Game 6, but unfortunately they went with their “money man.” They had the attitude that they had paid for Luongo so they might as well use him, despite what had occurred in Game 3 and Game 4. That attitude cost them the Stanley Cup and their rings.

Have you ever noticed that when players in whatever sport go overboard on pride it seems to catch up to them and they end up losers? A recent example was last week when the San Francisco 49ers played the New York Giants with the winner earning a trip to the Super Bowl. Vernon Davis scored a couple of touchdowns and he had to celebrate. On the first one he got up onto a camera stand and crossed his arms and posed for the photographers, and was penalized for it. It was a disgusting sight for any sports fan or player who loves the goodness of hard-fought competition, and who has respect. I was glad to see the 49er’s lose after that show of pride. Come on the guy had only scored a touchdown and was not going to the Super Bowl.

Finally, I would like to get back to Luongo’s poor record thus far this year because I want to illustrate that many goalies have proven themselves to be superior to him. Remember that Luongo currently has a Save Percentage of .918, a GAA of 2.39, and only 2 shutouts. In the shutout category, Luongo is tied for 13th with about 16 other goaltenders, all having just 2 shutouts thus far. His GAA puts him at 15th in the league in that category, while Schneider is in 11th. Luongo’s Save Percentage really shows how far back he is from the rest because he is tied for 18th in the league with four other goalies. Remember that Schneider is 6th in the league in Save Percentage.

The list of goalies who have outperformed Luongo thus far this year is long, and they include:  Henrik Lundqvist (Rangers), Brian Elliot (Blues), Tuukka Rask (Bruins), Jonathan Quick (Kings), Pekka Rinne (Predators), Martin Biron (Rangers), Tim Thomas (Bruins), Cory Schneider (Canucks), Jean-Sebastien Giguere (Avalanche), Jimmy Howard (Red Wings), Jaroslav Halak (Blues), Mike Smith (Coyotes), Josh Harding (Wild), Niklas Backstrom (Wild), Miikka Kiprusoff (Flames), Jhonas Enroth (Sabres), Evgeni Nabokov (Islanders), and Kari Lehtonen (Stars).

To all of the Roberto Luongo fans, please don’t be angry at the truth. I am not being too hard on him because he is a professional athlete and he loves to “walk the walk” and talk like he is the best. In fact, on more than one occasion I have heard him slight his teammates and he has refused to take responsibility for his own bad play. If I was an NHL player I would not want to be on the same team.

TJ Stanley