VANCOUVER — Somehow, Roberto Luongo might simultaneously own the label of best goaltender in the world and most criticized goaltender in the world.
The same Vancouver Canucks goalie who helped his team get to within one victory of the Stanley Cup and who won a gold medal on home ice for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics has been traded twice, called the opposite of clutch and scrutinized up and down by many around hockey.
The Vancouver Province editorial board even wrote an opinion piece calling for general manager Mike Gillis to trade Luongo and make room for backup Cory Schneider to take over the starting role.
Early-season struggles have only stoked the fire of criticism, as Luongo is 2-3-1 with a 3.45 goals-against average and .868 save percentage. But as the franchise netminder exudes confidence, the Capitals’ Tomas Vokoun and others believe Luongo will snap out of this.
“It happens to everybody. It’s a common thing,” Vokoun said. “One things as an NHL goaltender, you’re judged from not a week or two weeks. You’re judged on how consistent you are throughout the years. He’s been one of the best.”
Luongo’s career numbers of 2.53 (goals-against average) and .919 (save percentage) — much better than his bumpy October — support Vokoun’s claims. But the 32-year-old had to work hard to shake the idea that he falls apart in the clutch and may need to do it again after falling flat in the Cup Finals.
Meanwhile, Schneider appears to be one of the top young goaltenders. But Luongo is the guy with the 12-year, $64 million contract that goes through the 2021-22 season.
There’s a certain segment of those in hockey (and fans) who believe Schneider is better. And while Vokoun called Schneider “great,” he pointed out that like the backup quarterback is often the most popular player on a football team, the backup goalie can serve a similar role.
“People always kind of give the benefit of doubt of the guy who’s not playing as much,” Vokoun said. “People always think the grass is greener on the other side.”
It might be, given Schneider’s potential. But in Vancouver, Luongo is still the top guy, and the Canucks will go back to him Saturday night against the Caps. He last played Tuesday against the Oilers, getting yanked after 26:55 and allowing three goals on 14 shots.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault expects Luongo to “give it his best shot,” in the “Hockey Night in Canada” spotlight. The goaltender is used to the pressure, and despite the early-season struggles, he’s also feeling good about his game.
“You’ve just got to turn the page and get to work. That’s how you get over the hump,” Luongo said. “Obviously the results were not there in Edmonton, but you’ve just got to stay with it and keep working and things will eventually come.”
Bruce Boudreau has seen Luongo flourish in the NHL, but he also coached the goaltender with the Lowell Lock Monsters of the American Hockey League during the 1999-2000. That experience means Boudreau won’t be surprised by any level of bounce-back success Luongo has Saturday night.
“I know how good he can be. I know how mentally strong he is. Every time he steps on the ice, there’s that chance that he’s going to be great. I anticipate him being great,” Boudreau said. “So if he’s that, we better be prepared.”