As Roberto Luongo sat on the visitor’s bench in the United Centre shortly after the Vancouver Canucks were eliminated from the playoffs in a 7-5 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, he had a look of remorse etched underneath the mask still securely fastened to his head.
Unable to genuinely acknowledge the savvy of a young, fresh, and perhaps legitimate contender in Chicago in the post-game handshake, Luongo was left with thoughts of self-loathing.
"I think I let my teammates down tonight," Luongo said to a group of reporters. "It's something that's going to take a while to get over."
Of course, the way in which he conceded goals last night—he looked uncharacteristically slow on his posts and couldn’t properly gauge the Blackhawks’ rapidity—prompted questions about his future, and resurfaced doubts about his perception to deliver on the big stage.
With a 3.50 goals-against average and an. 879 save percentage in the playoffs, fans clearly didn’t see Luongo at full potential.
Despite the number of records posted in the regular-season as an NHL goalie in his career, his futile attempts to lift his team past the second round—albeit only having two opportunities to do so with the Canucks in the postseason—has also afflicted his being.
Given scepticism was rife in the West as to whether the Canucks would even qualify for the playoffs this year—and if the team had enough talent, it would be callous to rue their shortcomings.
But in the long-term scope, if one is to dissect the happenings of the Canucks’ 2008-09 season, Alain Vigneault position as head coach should be assessed. And if GM Mike Gillis wants a bona fide contender in Vancouver, he may see that Vigneault is no longer on the bench come next season.
After electing Luongo as captain in the absence and later departure of Markus Naslund in the off-season, Vigneault sparked debate in regards to a goaltender’s capacity to be a leader on the team.
This wasn’t a slight to Luongo himself; there was merely concern about the lack of a true leader on the bench in the heat of the moment, someone to dish orders, prod teammates and keep players focused on the task at hand—all of which could not be feasibly accomplished as a goalie trapped in the crease.
Sure, Mats Sundin was later added to the roster. But as a newly-introduced member of the team, he didn’t really have an idea of the team’s culture, let alone have time to readily assimilate into life in the west after living in the east for most of his career.
So Luongo had to deal with the brunt of media scrums. He had to ensure his voice was heard loud and clear in the dressing room. And he did adhere to his responsibilities as a leader, according to his fellow colleagues.
But in the playoffs, as Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau has denoted about his own goaltender in Simeon Varlamov, there is a tendency for the goalie to be left alone to mind his own thoughts.
Luongo himself may not believe in this superstition, but a goalie’s mentality is fragile and having to respond to media calls and other forms of dialogue in the dressing room can derail concentration.
Vigneault even vocalized a challenge to Luongo heading into Game Five, saying he was required to play at his best.
Was that necessary?
Vigneault seemed too reliant on Luongo as the quarterback of his team, where players like the Sedin twins and their Swedish compatriot Sundin had not played at par while Mattias Ohlund failed to assert himself as a top-four defenseman—all of whom, by the way, can exercise free agency come July 1.
So GM Gillis will have much to mull over in probing whom he wants to insert into his lineup next season.
And all else will follow accordingly if Luongo is simply called upon to play between the pipes, not to forge relationships with journalists.
"He's been exceptional for us, everyone knows what he means to our hockey club," Willie Mitchell said after the loss. "We win, we lose, everything we do is because of the team. It wasn't one play or one moment. It was multiple things that added up to failure.”
Unfortunately, it just wasn’t portrayed that way.