I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but there’s been a bit of banter about Roberto Luongo in Vancouver lately. He’s somewhat of a polarizing figure amongst Canucks fans.
In the past week the countless articles and blogs written about Luongo range from those who condemn him to those who support him and condemn the fans to those who think the Canucks should trade him back to the sunny state he came here from. I even wrote a piece about whether or not our expectations for him are unrealistic.
However, as much as these articles are different, they all have one thing in common. They all focus specifically about Luongo and what he has or hasn’t done. Whether it’s why so many Canucks fans hate him, his history of letting in bad goals or how he set the bar too high with his wonderful first season as a Canuck, it’s always about him, and maybe that’s the problem.
To better understand how we should feel about Luongo, perhaps we should start looking at what is really expected of a star NHL goalie in general. It’s only fair considering Luongo is the only true star goaltender we’ve ever had in Vancouver (sorry, Kirk McLean). This way maybe we’ll know exactly what kind of excellence to realistically demand of the Canucks' No. 1 goaltender when he steps between the pipes on Saturday night against the Washington Capitals.
The position of goaltender in hockey is unlike any other position you’ll ever come across in sports. It’s a position that’s evolved to the point that NHL goaltenders are now expected to stop over 90 percent of the shots they face. The closest comparison in sports to a success ratio that high is the pitchers in baseball that are expected to retire the hitters they face a minimum of 75 percent of the time.
Needless to say, it’s a lot to ask.
Goaltending has evolved so fast that we’ve reached the point where if you can see the puck and it’s not at point-blank range, you should be able to stop it if you’re among the best in the world.
This evolution has moved so quickly that NHL goalies can now position themselves to cover so much of the net that the puck often just hits them and at times they can make ridiculous saves look routine. To make a long story short, expectations for hockey goalies in general are at an all-time high. So, when you’re dubbed as one of the best in the world, the bar gets set even higher.
Star goalies are often expected to bail their teammates out when they’re not playing well. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a coach praise their goaltender by using the clichéd quote, “Well, we had a bad start, but he held us in there until we got things going and that’s what good goalies are suppose to do.”
Whenever I hear one of those quotes, I’m not sure if I should give all the credit to that goalie or give him none of the credit because he’s just doing his job. Nevertheless, this is what we’ve been taught to expect from the best goalies in the world at times, so in that regard Luongo isn’t doing his job well enough so far this season.
In the Canucks' 3-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, Luongo’s teammates went through a five-minute span where they had numerous defensive breakdowns. The result was three goals. Not two goals and a swift glove save off a wrist shot from the slot by Jordan Eberle. Not two goals and a great recovery from a miscommunication with Dan Hamhuis behind the net. It was three goals.
If Luongo had even bailed out his teammates once, maybe some of us might be willing to forgive him when he lets in the occasional soft goal because this is something that happens to everyone.
One of the misconceptions with star goaltenders is that they don’t allow any bad goals. This isn’t the case. It happens to all the best goalies and it happens more than just once in a blue moon. It happened countless times to Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek in their primes, and it’s even happened to the legendary Patrick Roy in the biggest of moments.
Everyone is human and every star athlete makes mistakes. Brett Favre threw plenty of interceptions in his prime as a star quarterback. Perhaps in that sense he is similar to Luongo. They both have Jekyll-and-Hyde styles, but they are still among the best at what they do.
Luongo just needs to regain his composure and make the timely saves, rather than making all the saves. A star goalie isn’t expected to perform like Henrik Lundqvist did against the Canucks last week, at least not more than a couple of times a year. It would have been wonderful if Luongo could have used one of those performances on that night, but we shouldn’t expect it from him.
However, if he can snuff out a couple more odd-man rushes from the opposition, maybe Kevin Bieksa can continue to join the attack without it negatively impacting his plus/minus. It’s not as if Bieksa didn’t join the rush last year, it’s just that Luongo was there to bail him out more often than not.
Defensive lapses in hockey happen, as do goaltending lapses. Unfortunately for the Vancouver Canucks, their star goaltender hasn’t been there for the defensemen on enough occasions early in the season.
On Saturday night, this has to change because another trait of a star goalie is they usually get the better of the star snipers when push comes to shove.
Let’s go back to the percentages and make the goalie vs. pitcher comparison once again. If a pitcher can retire even the best hitter in the game nearly 70 percent of the time, a goalie like Roberto Luongo should be able to stop a shooter like Alexander Ovechkin on at least 80 percent of his scoring chances.
Will he be up to the challenge? History dictates this is the time of year when Bobby Lu begins to round into his All-Star form and the Canucks will certainly need a star in goal with the NHL’s best goal scorer on the opposition.
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