Great Save (For) Luongo!
So Roberto Luongo has been getting it from all angles as of late and Saturday's game against the Sharks, an affair where he gave up 3 goals in a losing effort has ratcheted up the criticism. (Sidenote: I apologize for the lack of a Postscript for the San Jose game, I came down with something and was incapacitated for Saturday night/Sunday. Oops.) While I wasn't a fan of the Marleau goal (which came after a smart play from Rob Blake, forcing Alex Edler to turn over the puck) and thought he 'ran out of mulligans' against the Oilers, I do think some of the criticism is being a little over the top.
Take, for example, Dave Hodge's feature on TSN during the Edmonton game. Sold as looking for reasons as to why the Canucks won't win the Cup this season, it quickly morphed into Hodge running Luongo down, claiming he is the reason why Vancouver won't win the Cup. On Sunday during TSN's The Reporters, Hodge brought up Luongo again with most of the guests taking their turn at bashing him. I understand there'll always be differing opinions in the world of sport, you sort of have to wonder about the motivations of folks like Damien Cox, whose criticism of Luongo you have to take with a grain of salt.
It's not just the press, though. Fans have been giving Luongo grief for his play as of late. Twitter, message boards and blogs like this one have been highly critical of Luongo. No matter where you look, there seems to be someone else out there willing to give both barrels to the captain of the Canucks.
The big argument right now is that Luongo absolutely needs to have a strong playoff performance this year or he, and the Canucks, are doomed with that albatross 12 year contract of his. Another Game 6 effort like the one Luongo had against the Blackhawks last season and, well, the Canucks are doomed to become the next San Jose: a good enough team in the regular season, unable to get it done in the postseason.
In a lot of ways, this criticism is similar to what two other Canucks players have been getting. I am, of course, referring to the Sedins, who have faced endless amounts of criticism, vitriol and irrational hatred ever since they put on a Canucks sweater. Even now, as recent as during the Olympics, fans have described them as being nothing more than 'really good second liners.' Yet, every time they've been faced with criticism they've met it and squashed it. Too soft? They bulked up by running up hills all summer. Not able to score enough? Each season they set new offensive highs. Can't play without each other? Henrik's performance this year seems to disprove that theory.
Unable to get it done in the playoffs? That's been the big reason why fans were loathe to see the Twins re-signed this offseason, despite Daniel Sedin being able to pot 2 goals in that infamous Game 6. Unfortunately, it's hard to remember the 'good' and far easier to focus on the 'bad': the bad generally stings a lot more and is far more memorable, especially when it's outweighed by a rather catastrophic bad moment, like getting eliminated from the playoffs. The Canucks' inability to score a goal (just one!) in the 05/06 playoffs remains indelibly linked to the Sedins, leaving folks to think that they can't score, despite more recent evidence pointing to the contrary.
So it goes. Which is why I think that Luongo's struggles as of late are a tad bit overblown. I'm not trying to excuse his bad play: he has ranged from mediocre to terrible for a while now and has been hooked an uncommon number of times this season. I also think that if Luongo's struggles extend into the postseason this year it's not cause for concern and folks shouldn't be throwing themselves off the Lion's Gate Bridge if the Canucks are given an early playoff exit. The reason? Goalies, no matter how good (or bad) they are, will go through slumps and have problems with their play. It happens to the best and Luongo is no exception.
Looking at some of Luongo's contemporaries and it can become easy to criticize a goalie at the first sign of trouble. I've been guilty of this myself. Take a Miikka Kiprusoff of the Flames. After having two phenomenal seasons which saw him carry the Flames to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals and win both the Vezina and Jennings trophies, Kipper's stats went on a horrible slide: his GAA went from 2.24 all the way up to 3.52 while his save percentage fell from a great .921 to a Dan Cloutier-esque .884. That changed this season, as Kipper's stats are on the upswing (2.27 and .920 as of this writing), even if the rest of his team isn't. While Canuck fans may not want to compare Luongo to Kipper in a favorable light I feel they're comparable: Luongo languished in hockey purgatory playing for some horrible teams in Florida before becoming a Canuck at age 27, while Kiprusoff didn't get a chance at being a bonafide #1 until he was 28. (For the record, Luongo's stats have actually slightly decreased over the same four year span going from 2.97/.914 in his last season as a Panther to 2.49/.920 as of today. Looking at Luo's stats as a Canuck shows there hasn't been much variance from his first season to now, even with the rather spotty play from him as of late.)
Some of Luongo's contemporaries have either struggled or been faced with criticism over the past couple of years. JS Giguere had a stunning Cup run back in 02/03 and then struggled afterwards before winning the Cup several seasons later after Brian Burke had retooled the team. Interestingly, Luongo was part of a mini-rebuild in Vancouver that saw the Canucks transition from the WCE Era Canucks into the Luongo/Sedin-led Canucks that was started by Dave Nonis. Mike Gillis now heads up the club and I find it hard to believe that he's done putting his stamp on the team, which is scary when you think about it.
There's also been a history of goalie greats who have struggled. After Martin Brodeur won the Cup in '95, he went on a bit of a playoff drought winning only one playoff series in the next four seasons, and failed to make the playoffs in 95/96. This was on a team with the likes of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, I might add. Marty also managed some decidedly un-Martylike numbers, averaging a 2.17 GAA and a .913 save percentage. (Keep in mind this was during the 'Dead Puck' Era where Brodeur's GAA was 1.67 when he won the Cup.) While I was a little hesitant to bring up Brodeur here, as he does have a Cup ring defending his play, I feel it's important to point out that even the greatest have their moments where they appear to be weak.
Another example of this would be Dominik Hasek, who served as backup to Ed Belfour when both were members of the Blackhawks and didn't get a chance to play as a starter until his fourth season of being in the NHL and didn't make it out of the first round for another three years after that. Hasek also had more than his fair share of problems off the ice, including a highly publicized feud with Sabres coach Ted Nolan (the fallout of which has led Nolan in having some major difficulties in finding employment at the NHL level, despite being seen as a very good coach and having won the Jack Adams) and injury woes which led to him allegedly quitting on his team in the playoffs. This last bit placed Hasek under some scrutiny and led to some Buffalo reporters speculating on the nature of Hasek's injuries…which resulted in an angry Hasek attacking one reporter and earning a three game suspension for his antics. And you thought Luongo's bathroom break and pregancy woes were bad.
Hasek did, of course, end up winning the Cup after a lengthy journey. Again, there are some parallels you can make with Luongo. As I said earlier, Luongo toiled on some bad Panthers clubs, never qualifying for the post season. It took him until the age of 27 before he got even a sniff of playoff hockey. He's now 31 and folks are freaking out that he's just about finished and his better days are behind him. Ignoring that Hasek first made it to the Finals when he was 34 years old and didn't win the Cup until he was an ancient 37 years of age, I feel that ignoring his relative playoff inexperience is unfair to Luongo. Not everyone has the luxury of playing for a strong team right out of the gate like Luongo's idol Grant Fuhr did. Sometimes the path to the Cup takes a little longer, and the players just need some seasoning before they're ready to win it all.
Finally, while I hate to trot out excuses, there is a rather significant one that explains Luongo's poor play as of late. The Olympics were a huge event for everyone and you know that the toll it took on the players involved, particularly those on Team Canada, had to be physically, mentally and emotionally draining. Being in the starter's role, playing in your home arena and representing your country can't be an easy task and going from playoff like levels of intensity and excitement to the NHL regular season has got to be jarring. I know it was for me, and I'm only a fan! I can't imagine what it would've been like for the players who were actually a part of it, although Luongo has conceded that the Olympics were the 2 most emotionally draining weeks of his career.
That all said, I don't think it's the end of the world if the Canucks don't win the Cup this year and I don't think that it makes Luongo an overrated player, despite what TSN will have you believe. Every goalie struggles, but it's the fact that they are able to rebound and put in Cup or Gold winning efforts that makes them great.
Will Luongo take that step and become a truly 'great' goalie? Or will he stumble and become merely a 'very good' goalie, a la Curtis Joseph? Time will tell, but I'll believe Luongo when he says that he'll 'be there when it matters.'