The Off-Season is a time for many things for the fans. Watching where the hottest free agents go and passing the time with fantasy drafts and potential opening rosters. However one of the things fans of every team partake in is assessing is what, specifically, was the downfall of the prior season. Well, that is the case for 29 teams at least. For the Vancouver Canucks, and other teams, it’s usually a blame game; one player to take the burden, a scapegoat, if you will. Names like Kevin Bieksa are thrown around a little bit, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler escaped most of the scrutiny of fans by playing the injury card. But above all other players on the Canucks, the most prominent scapegoat is the Captain, as well he should be, right? After all, he is our Captain.
Immediately after the Canucks 2010 Playoff run had tragically ended the same way on the same day as a year prior, fans were quick to call for Luongo’s head, figuratively speaking. Literally speaking they wanted his captaincy stripped and assigned to another player. Names like Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin were all in the mix for the new captain. Luongo has been the face of the franchise since his first season as a Canuck where he posted a stellar 2.29 GAA and .921 SV%, he finished second in Vezina, Lester B. Pearson and Hart Trophy voting. The reason there was so much hype around Luongo was because Vancouver hasn’t had a proper goalie since 1998, when Kirk McLean last played. After suffering through the Sanfords, the Sabourins and the Cloutiers the idea of having a superstar netminder was exhilarating. It carried a lot of hope and promise, after all for a franchise that is yet to win a Stanley Cup, big moves carry high hopes results-wise.
It was for this reason, I believe, that prior to the start of the 08-09 Regular Season Roberto Luongo was announced as the 12th Captain in Canucks history. The announcement stunned a good deal of the NHL’s analysts. This is because it was an unorthodox move, a goalie had not been appointed captain since the 1947-48 season when Bill Durnan captained the Montreal Canadiens. Since that time some rules had been implemented that regarded a goalie captain. For one, Luongo is not to wear the “C” on his jersey. Simple enough, for the first season as captain Luongo had a “C” on the chin of his mask (pictured above), problem solved. Another rule was that during the game Luongo could not take part in on-ice captain’s duties, such as speaking to the referees about disputing calls. Willie Mitchell, an alternate captain at the time, was given this role instead. Luongo was also not allowed to take ceremonial face-offs for the team, another alternate captain at the time, Mattias Ohlund, took those on behalf of the team instead. So at the time, the decision to make Luongo captain was an odd one, and required quite a bit of improvising to make it work, but it did, and people were happy, because Vancouver loved Bobby Lou.
Fast forward to today. The decision to make Luongo is being questioned more than ever, regarded as a mistake by some, even. People cite that his GAA has increased gradually since becoming captain and that his save percentage fluctuates. And those two facts are true, but are they a direct result of him being captain? A captain has a lot of responsibilities outside of being a leader in the locker room. Luongo is most likely involved and consulted in a lot of moves for the team. Players that want to address an issue like ice time might go to Luongo first and ask for him to speak on their behalf. All these things add up to more stress and more things for him to worry about. Nobody truly knows if they affect him but one has to wonder. Common sense would assume that he would perform better if the only thing he had to worry about was keeping a black disk out of a red rimmed white net. It certainly simplifies things.
Among goalies who played 60 or more games in the NHL in the 09-10 Regular Season Luongo was 11th in both save percentage and goals against average. Ask yourself, is this acceptable? Luongo was the 9th highest paid goalie (by cap hit) last season but he certainly didn’t put up the numbers to match. There have been plenty of excuses for Luongo. The 14 game road trip was too much. The Olympics tired him out. He plays too many games in the regular season and that tires him out for the stretch. The Canucks defense has been inadequate, and injuries made it worse than that. All of these excuses have some weight to them but at the end of the day, they are still excuses.
One of the biggest defenses for Luongo this past season was that he won gold with Team Canada at the Olympics in Vancouver. As great a feat as that was, consider this: if team USA had scored in overtime and won the gold what would the main story have been in Canada? If you haven’t guessed it yet, it would be the last minute goal Luongo allowed Zach Parise to score to tie the game and send it into overtime. Luongo could quite possibly have been hated in Canada. I think Luongo needs to take Crosby out to lunch at the least for scoring that overtime goal because he changed the potential story of “Luongo costs Canada” into “Storybook Ending: Crosby Nets OT Winner For Canada”. So the Olympics are not much of a defense for Luongo, in fact considering the last minute goal it could be considered a point to attack him at and further add to the argument that he chokes in big games.
Looking at Luongo’s first season it’s puzzling what has happened since then. The team around him has gotten better thanks in large part to General Manager Mike Gillis and the rest of the scouting staff. However as the rest of the team gets better Luongo’s play seems to deteriorate. So the question remains then, is Luongo overrated?
The answer to that is yes and no. Yes in the sense that with the expectations he had coming in and the money he is being paid he is not playing to the level that he should be. At the same time, he is not overrated because of all the open criticisms he receives. How can he be called overrated when he is constantly being berated for every mistake he makes and being held at the stake? In fact the criticisms have gotten so high (as seen in this very article) and at times even ridiculous that he may very well start being underrated, as odd as it sounds. Still overpaid, but underrated nonetheless.
This next season holds a lot for Luongo. Mike Gillis is doing everything in his power to make things click for our supposedly elite goaltender. The previous part-time goalie coach Ian Clark has been relieved of his duties in favor of Roland Melanson (former goalie coach for that Jaro Halak fellow… I think you’ve heard of him, yes?), who will be a full-time goalie coach. Cory Schneider is confirmed to be the Canucks official back-up goalie and it is rumored he will be receiving in the ballpark of around 20 games in this upcoming season, reducing Luongo’s previous years load from 68 games played to 60. My guess is most of these games Schneider plays will be towards the end of the season, giving Luongo a chance to keep energized for the playoffs and allowing Schneider to play in some games once we are most likely a “lock” for the Northwest Division title.
Gillis, having seen how we had to dress AHL talent in the playoffs due to injuries, grabbed Keith Ballard and then signed Dan Hamhuis, two very durable defensemen that have a history of playing high minutes without missing any games. He has also shifted from the “three scoring lines” mentality to the “shutdown line” mentality. Emulating what teams like LA and Chicago did by having a third line in which the main focus was to neutralize the other team’s star players. He acquired Manny Malhotra for this, a very good faceoff man with good defensive play. It also seems like he’s not finished with the bottom 6.
Will a lightened load, improved defensive corps, more defensive and gritty 3rd and 4th lines and a full time goaltender coach along with no Olympics or 14-game road trip be enough to set Luongo up for a huge comeback year? Gillis seems to be doing all he can, at the end of the day the burden lies on Luongo’s shoulders. The biggest thing Luongo can learn this season is not to improve his play with the puck like he did last season, but instead believe in himself. It’s that missing confidence that I believe is holding him back in those big game situations. We have all seen those flashes of when Luongo is Luongo, like when he made that goal-line save in overtime against the Kings this year.
But that brings us to the final question; do we give Luongo one more year as the captain of this team? Or is it time for that to change? Personally I believe that Luongo should be asked to step down as captain. It serves multiple purposes, one of the major ones being a reality check to Luongo. He earned his way to captaincy but has since fallen and to let him keep the captaincy after disappointing would be to reward failure. In his place, I think Henrik Sedin should be announced captain. The popular vote is Kesler because he’s young and easy to cheer for, but the reality is that Kesler still loses his composure during games. His hatred for losing would be a good attitude to spread, but he’s just not ready yet.
When Shane O’Brien was losing his cool on the ice and chirping endlessly at the Chicago Blackhawks it wasn’t Kesler or Vigneault who got him to shut up and sit down. It was Henrik who stood up and told O’Brien to cool it and get back on the bench, and more importantly, Henrik was the one O’Brien listened to. This one on-ice situation showed me just how much respect Henrik Sedin commands in the locker room. There are captains out there who rule by fear or intimidation, but respect is harder to earn and a far more efficient way of controlling your players. During the series against the Blackhawks even the mild-mannered Daniel Sedin lost his cool at times and confused himself with Darcy Hordichuk, but Henrik for the most part remained composed and played his part on the team. It is this cool calm and collected composure that I think the Canucks need to have in their captain.
So in summation, Roberto Luongo is now thin on excuses. It’s time to answer the critics and perform, especially when it counts. He’s got all the talent he needs and more, it’s the mental aspect of being a goalie that he needs to perfect. As Canucks fans we can only sit back and hope that Roberto Luongo learns this and has an amazing year.