Playing the role of a starting goaltender for an NHL team in a Canadian market is one of the toughest jobs in sports, not only from a physical standpoint, but a mental one too.
No current NHL player understands this better than Roberto Luongo, who has been embroiled in a goalie controversy since the end of the 2011-12 season. The controversy ended with the Vancouver Canucks exploring every possible way to trade him and make young star Cory Schneider the goaltender of the team's present and future.
Vancouver ultimately traded Schneider in a move that even shocked Luongo. After the emotions of the move dwindle and the bigger picture becomes more clear, Luongo and the Canucks will quickly realize that what happened will actually benefit the franchise next season and long term.
"From the outset, Roberto is a consummate professional," said Canucks general manager Mike Gillis at the team's annual Summer Summit. "He's a great goaltender...At the end of the day we had to make a choice, and we made the choice to go with Roberto."
“We all probably could’ve worked harder at helping him, but what's happened I think is remarkable, and I think he’s really enthused about the next steps and what the future is going to hold."
"We’re pleased he’s going to be our No. 1 goalie.”
Gillis also discussed his meeting with Luongo in Florida after the 2013 NHL draft to discuss the Schneider trade and his future with the club.
“I was comfortable there. We have a really good relationship. It isn’t strained or adversarial at all. I think he’s going to be fine. He’s a consummate professional. I think he’ll wind up being Canada’s No. 1 goalie and Roberto will be our No. 1 goalie. I feel very optimistic about it.”
An NHL team will only go as far as the goaltender takes it.
This is why it's so important for Luongo to be in a comfortable situation with the Canucks where he's the undisputed starter. No backup is going to challenge him for that role next season even if the 33-year-old veteran struggles.
Not having to deal with the distractions that are created from a goalie controversy, like the one Vancouver has experienced over the last two years, will greatly benefit Luongo and the team as a whole. Instead of trying to win a job, he'll be able to just relax and focus on helping the team win games.
The Canucks have enjoyed a lot of success with Luongo as the anchor of the defense, including six postseason appearances in his seven years with the club. He's won 30-plus games in each of his last seven non-lockout seasons and is still in the prime of his career. Becoming a Vezina Trophy finalist next year is a realistic goal for Luongo.
As Vancouver transitions from Alain Vigneault to John Tortorella behind the bench, the team's focus on defense, shot-blocking and physical play will increase. Tortorella's defensive style of hockey doesn't produce results without a quality netminder such as Luongo. The Canucks should see immediate success next year with this type of play.
Another factor to consider with Luongo is the level of motivation he will bring into next season after all that has been written and said about him since his meltdown in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
He's received a ton of criticism from fans and media, some of it unfairly, but as the starter heading into the 2013-14 season, we won't see a goaltender with more to prove than Luongo.
The Quebec native will be on a mission to deliver the franchise its first ever championship and prove to Hockey Canada that his role as the team's No. 1 goalie at the Winter Olympics should remain unchanged.
A new coach, a fresh start and an opportunity to prove his doubters wrong will result in a fantastic 2013-14 NHL season from Luongo.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.
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