One man in a Vancouver Canucks uniform is not particularly keen on the NHL team’s new shot-blocking ethos. His name is Roberto Luongo.
Wednesday night in Vancouver, Luongo was torched in his first preseason game, yielding four goals on just 18 shots in two periods against the Edmonton Oilers. The veteran goaltender took the blame – but fairly cited the fact his defence was in some disarray. Players, looking to impress head coach John Tortorella and his black-and-blue philosophy, made attempts to get in the way of pucks but instead caused confusion and blocked not the puck, but Luongo’s view.
Luongo is of the same mind of Martin Brodeur, another goaltender from the east end of Montreal, one who prefers his New Jersey teammates to get out of the way and let the netminder do the work. The Devils, like the Canucks, have been among those that block the fewest shots in the league.
“That’s what I prefer,” Luongo said to a small group of reporters after the typical media horde cleared after the game. “In the past, you know especially when the [other team’s] guys are far out, take away sticks and stuff like that …”
Luongo did not finish his thought, before making a conciliatory turn to the new regime and reality of Tortorella.
“But if you’re a good team at blocking shots then that’s going to cut down on a lot of chances too,” he said, ably pivoting. “So like I said, I’m open to change. If it makes our group better then I’m all for it.”
The Canucks do not have an ingrained skill in the art of the shot block. It was never part of former coach Alain Vigneault’s philosophy. Last season, Vancouver was ranked 27th in the league in blocked shots; the year before, it was the same, 27th. (Meanwhile, Tortorella’s New York Rangers were sixth and fourth, respectively.)
The value of blocked shots is debatable. In the past decade, only two teams that won the Stanley Cup ranked in the top dozen teams during the season in blocked pucks (Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09, fourth, and Carolina Hurriacnes in 2005-06, first). Two teams – Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07 and Detroit Red Wings in 2007-08 – were last in blocked shots.
And even Tortorella’s Tampa Bay Lightning squad in 2003-04 were only No.17 in blocked shots.
Blocking shots might be an ethos, a philosophy, a state-of-mind to absorb pain for a greater good, regardless of actual efficacy. But the strategy basically has zero correlation with winning.
The Canucks, Luongo politely said, don’t know how to do it. And training camp thus far has been one long bag skate, without any actual work on systems of play, which led to the confusion on the ice last Wednesday. The systems work begins after a day off on Thursday.
“I kind of felt the first 10, 15 minutes, guys weren’t too sure what to do out there,” Luongo said of the span of time where four goals rained in. At night’s end, the Canucks managed to block just 11 pucks, half the amount the Oilers turned away.
Hesitation by defenders caused some chaos for Vancouver, hurting Luongo on several of the goals.
“I just felt, a couple times, guys were trying to block shots but they were not sure if they should or not,” he said, adding advice: “You better block it. If you don’t, I won’t see it.”
Two games into the preseason, with a new coach who is basically the opposite of the old bench boss, confusion can be expected. Luongo knows the trick is how quickly the team adjusts.
That is, if it can. It is not fun to block shots – and even less so when a player, logically, knows it is not a winning strategy.
“If you’re going to be there, you have to be 100-per-cent committed to blocking it,” he said. “That’s going to come with time. It’s not something that happens from one day to the next, all of a sudden, you’re blocking shots all over the place. … Obviously, we want to have that shot-block mentality, but when it’s something that we haven’t done as a group sometimes there’s a little bit of hesitation or whatever there.
“It’s just going to take time.”