The 2013-14 NHL Season: Being Roberto Luongo


Believe it or not, the puck drops on 2013-14 NHL regular season tonight, with a triple header (Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens, Capitals vs. Blackhawks, Jets vs. Oilers). This season, there will be no shortened schedule, few stretches of condensed games for individual teams, and overall, better quality hockey as players and coaches get back the time they weren't afforded thanks to the lockout.

While the story lines are aplenty in this upcoming campaign — realignment, the new playoff format, Chicago's quest for yet another Cup, the player movement, the battle for second-best player in the world, etc. — nothing intrigues me more than the Roberto Luongo situation up in Vancouver.

For those of you who don't know, Luongo has had quite the remarkable career … in more ways than one. Frankly, it's probably easiest to just go ahead and start from the beginning.

After being selected fourth overall in 1997 by the New York Islanders, Luongo began his NHL career at the turn of the millennium, playing in 24 games as a rookie for that other New York squad before being traded to the Florida Panthers.

Playing in the anonymity of Florida, Luongo quickly established himself as the man in net for the Panthers, posting a .920 save percentage and 2.44 goals against average in 47 games for an awful Panthers squad. Truth be told, Luongo was pretty much the lone bright spot in the organization … and his star was only about to shine brighter.

While toiling away in a hockey abyss, Luongo transformed into an elite netminder, highlighted by his 2003-04 Vezina-worthy campaign: .931 save percentage, 2.43 goals against average, seven shutouts and, again, the lone star in Florida. He made his first of three all-star appearances that year, and by the time Luongo closed out his time in Florida, he set team records for most all-time games played, wins and shutouts. All this with an atrocious team in front of him.

In his final season down south, Luongo helped lead the Panthers to their first winning season in a while, but it was clear the two were destined to part ways. Luongo wanted a huge deal — and most likely out of the frustration of playing in a hockey wasteland. And the Panthers were not too keen on the idea of tying up all their money in a goaltender. Suddenly, Luongo was on the trade market, and he was the most coveted goalie in the league.

The Vancouver Canucks, coming off an impressive string of seasons among the league's point leaders with question marks in net, came calling, and soon Luongo became the highest paid netminder in the land for a franchise looking for stability in net. And Luongo did not disappoint. He was so good in his first two seasons and so respected in the locker room that he was named the captain of the team. He posted spectacular numbers and helped the Canucks become the class of the Western Conference. In his first five seasons in Vancouver, Luongo was good as it gets, posting a sub-2.40 goals against average every year (highlighted by a sparkling 2.11 GAA in 2010-11) but one and notching 28 shutouts (including nine in the 2008-09 season).

He became an all-star and even went on to help Team Canada to Olympic gold in 2010, starting ahead of the winningest goaltender of all time, Martin Brodeur.

Roberto Luongo became one of the best goalies in the world for the one of the best teams in the NHL … yet it wasn't enough.

Colorado Avalanche v Vancouver Canucks

After beginning his postseason career in the same way he dominated the regular season — .941 save percentage and 1.77 GAA in 2007, .914 save percentage and 2.52 GAA in 2009 — Luongo had a disastrous 2010 playoffs, posting an embarrassing .895 save percentage and giving up more than three goals a game. Soon, Luongo became the embodiment of Vancouver's playoff failures — a favorite that always stumbled in the postseason. Bad goals, blowout losses, questions of mental stability — they all began to enter the fray.

However, instead of letting it bog him down, Luongo relished the criticism. The following season, he had as good a year as ever, going 38-15-7 with a sterling .928 save percentage and even more impressive 2.11 goals against average with four shutouts for a Canucks squad that registered 117 points. He posted four more shutouts in the postseason as the Cancuks made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final … where they blew a 2-0 series to lose to the Bruins in seven games. And while Luongo did post two shutouts in the series — one in Game 1 and another in a pivotal Game 5 — he also got absolutely lit up in all four losses.

After that debacle in the Final, the good vibes between Luongo and the Canucks began to vanish. Down the stretch of the 2011-12 season, despite starting 55 games and going 31-14-8 with a .919 save percentage and 2.41 GAA, people really began to question Luongo in net. Then after surrendering seven goals in the first two games of the playoffs, in which the top-seeded Canucks feel behind 2-0 to the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings, that was all she wrote for Roberto Luongo, starting Vancouver goaltender.

The younger, cheaper Cory Schneider was in and performed much, much better even as the Canucks were upset by the eventual Stanley Cup champion.

Shortly thereafter, Schneider was given the reins to the Canucks, making for quite an awkward season last year. Given his enormous contract, Luongo was virtually untradeable. Hence, he became the most expensive, most accomplished backup goalie in NHL history. The all-time wins and shutouts leader in Canucks history was taking a seat behind a younger, cheaper guy. A gold medalist, an all-star, a man who had been integral in Presidents' Trophies and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final became an observer.

Naturally, Luongo requested a trade at first, but to his credit, when a trade became clearly unavailable, he handled the situation like a pro. Luongo didn't complain, didn't talk badly about his team or his friend Cory Schneider, didn't cause any problems. He made 20 starts and played well enough in his backup role, and he played fine enough for an injured Schneider to start the playoffs.

Then, as the Canucks underachieved yet again, he waited for baited breath to see if a trade would come.

And it did … only it wasn't Luongo who was changing addresses. Instead, in a surprising move, the Canucks traded the younger, cheaper Schneider, their starting goaltender at the time, to the New Jersey Devils, where he'll split time with an aging Martin Brodeur and presumably be the heir apparent.

Now Luongo takes his spot back between the pipes for Vancouver, the job all his entering this season … and well, it's just as awkward as last season, isn't it?

Some seven years after they handed him gobs of money and the starting goaltender spot, Roberto Luongo must prove himself worthy of all that dough once again, must earn that respect and adulation that he had been showered with for so many years. But the questions linger on whether or not he'll be looking over his shoulder at the first sign of trouble, waiting for another youngster to take his spot. Does he trust the organization, and does the organization really trust him? Only time will tell, and it will be riveting to watch.

By all measures, Luongo is one of the most accomplished goaltenders to ever play the game … yet his career has been anything but that of the most elite of netminders. From highly touted first-round pick to franchise savior and all-star to captain to gold medalist to goat and back again, it must be really weird being Roberto Luongo.

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