If there’s one certainty about the Vancouver Canucks entering the 2011-12 NHL season, it’s that they have absolutely no goaltending issues.
Roberto Luongo’s doubters have tons of ammunition when it comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs, but if you doubt him in the regular season, well, then you just haven’t been paying attention.
As fantasy general managers know, the Canucks goaltender is an excellent bet for at least 30 wins. He will almost certainly post a low goals-against average, and a high save percentage. Throw in a half-dozen shutouts for No. 1, and know that he will be in a Vézina Trophy discussion at some point this year – just probably not at the end of October, traditionally his worst month.
After 11 years in the NHL, that is who Roberto Luongo is. That’s how he rolls. Unless age catches up with him in one fell swoop – and at 32, that would be awfully young for a goaltender simply to lose it – then Luongo will once again be a driver of Canucks’ success this season.
The playoffs? Now that’s another matter.
When last seen, Luongo was on the losing end of the Cup final, beaten three times in a 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 7. The more troubling stat came in the first six games of the series, when the Montreal native was pulled from two of three starts in Boston. He allowed 15 goals in 112 minutes at the TD Garden, looking helpless and hopeless when the games mattered most.
This year, Luongo’s work rate will again decrease, and he has made yet another technical change. He is carrying his glove hand a little bit higher than before, but that’s a simple adjustment compared to the overhaul introduced by goaltending coach Roland Melanson last season.
He adopted those changes – playing deeper in his net, pushing off one skate – with aplomb. He was a Vézina finalist and had “by far his best year with us,” according to Canucks captain Henrik Sedin. “He made it look easy.”
This year, Luongo thinks he can improve even more because he has had a second summer, and a second full training camp, to perfect his new style.
“Last year, at this point, there was still a lot of learning and getting comfortable with it,” Luongo said. “Now, there’s no thinking involved as far as that is concerned. It just comes natural.”
The Canucks scaled back Luongo’s workload and authority last season, using backup Cory Schneider for 25 games, and giving Sedin his captaincy. This year, Melanson intends on lightening Luongo’s load even further after 84 starts last season, including 24 in the postseason, and a short summer.
“I’m giving him more days off, and I’m giving him more situations where I’m not going out [on the ice]before practice to work on certain things,” the coach said. “We prepare here for the month of June. We don’t prepare to just get into the playoffs.
“I think Lui is having more fun playing this way [because]he is conserving more energy and he’s not finding himself worn down at times.”
That is somewhat revolutionary for Luongo because he is so competitive, and because he so loves hockey, that the less-is-more concept was not something that seemed to mesh with his personality. He understands that the first sign of trouble this year will unearth the doubters, and that the playoffs will bring about another round of questions of whether he can perform on the big stage.
As much as greater regular seasons are Luongo, doubts and questions are part of the package, too.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I’m okay with most of the stuff,” Luongo said of the public discussions that surround him. “But I don’t really know anybody that likes to hear negative stuff about themselves.”