A heavy fog sat low on Vancouver on Sunday morning, obscuring everything – buildings, mountains – a fog that had greeted the city each day this past week before dissipating by midday.
The Canucks’ goaltending situation is about as clear, in a deep fog to begin this truncated National Hockey League season. But don’t call it a goaltending controversy, which is a façile way to describe what is a more complex situation. The sport of hockey – and sports in general – often do not tolerate nuance, uncomfortable with situations beyond black and white. People want absolute answers.
The only thing clear is Vancouver has two quality goaltenders – even if it didn’t really look that way this weekend – and the Canucks in general were so-so at best. As for the netminders, expect to see a lot of both of them this winter.
On Saturday, the starter – Cory Schneider – was terrible, giving up five goals on 14 shots against the Anaheim Ducks, getting the hook before the halfway mark. The backup – Roberto Luongo – wasn’t great either and the Canucks played poorly, losing 7-3, the most goals the team has given up in a season debut.
On Sunday, Luongo got the start, a move coach Alain Vigneault said he had mapped out before the season opener, which jives with previous seasons, when the team would plan who plays when well ahead of time, and generally did not play one netminder two nights in a row. Even as Schneider might need, and want, redemption, that chance will probably come on Wednesday against the Calgary Flames.
So – in a situation that would have seemed preposterous last summer – Luongo started, and played reasonably well against the youth brigade of the Edmonton Oilers. Yet last year’s second-worst team scrapped back from a 2-0 disadvantage and forced overtime.
The issue was settled in a shootout, with Edmonton’s Devan Dubnyk outduelling Luongo, and the Oilers won 3-2.
Luongo was angry at himself for giving up another shootout loss in a season debut – it happened last year when he was a starter, against Pittsburgh, and against Los Angeles the year before. But of his relationship with Schneider, Luongo remained steadfast that it is strong, calling the guy who took his job “one of the best goalies in the league.”
“We’re a team, you know, no matter what the roles are this year,” said Luongo Sunday night. “It’s important we’ve got each other’s backs. We both play for the Vancouver Canucks, and we both want to win games for the team.”
On the Edmonton side, rookie coach Ralph Krueger – who was associate coach the past two seasons – said his team was more competitive last year than its 29th place finish might indicate, and added there is a marked change in attitude and confidence this year -- “a different swagger.”
“We still have a lot of work ahead of us, and a lot of learning curves, but there’s a completely different energy in the room right now,” said Krueger after the game.
For Vancouver, ceding a 2-0 lead on somewhat weak goals is a mark against Luongo – and he was poor in the shootout – but he did look good in a number of episodes on Sunday, one of which, with the Canucks up 1-0 in the second period, saw Oilers rookie Justin Schultz wide open in the front of the net and whip his first NHL shot, one that Luongo snatched with a swift glove save.
Luongo’s start against the Oilers does not mean he is poised to take back the job he lost in the playoffs last April against the Los Angeles Kings. Yes, general manager Mike Gillis probably would have preferred to pull the trigger on a trade in the off-season, but his demands for something tangible in return, and Luongo’s no-trade clause – which gives the veteran some leverage – led to the current situation.
It is perhaps not ideal but it is what it is – and the team deals with it, even as some critics chatter about perceived controversy. One person at the club privately echoes what Gillis – and Luongo— have suggested in public, that this could stretch for months, and the person said a platoon of Schneider and Luongo – led by the starter Schneider – is realistic, with the two men, who are friends, spurring each other, and the team, on.
While a No. 1 starter, who plays most of the games, is what most hockey people know well and are comfortable with, a duo can and has worked, such as last season in St. Louis, or a true platoon that was run by the 2006-07 San Jose Sharks, which also worked fairly well.
What it means for a Luongo trade is now entirely guesswork, given the many variables in play. Other teams could panic as the year wears on – and Luongo could suddenly be worth a lot. There could be injuries, in Vancouver or elsewhere. Or the veteran as backup, playing a bunch of games, could become valuable to the Canucks. The team did not plan it this way. However, in life, brilliance is sometimes accidental. Vigneault has called this season one of “uncharted waters.” Right now, the fog remains dense.