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From Luongod to Bobby Loser: another season ends badly on the Wet Coast

I should like Roberto Luongo. I tend to sympathize with goalies, having been one myself  - many years ago, and more soccer than hockey, but it forever changed how I experience the game. I learned to watch the game from the inside out, from the goal on out, in a similar manner as I learned to listen to music from the bottom up when I played tuba in the school band. So today I like bass players and I like goalies. Go figure.

Most goalies, that is. For whatever reason I have never taken a shine to Luongo, all the way back to his junior days. I respect his talent, and his four gold medals representing Canada, but the man himself leaves me cold.  Why doesn't Bruce like Luongo? It's one of those unanswerable questions like, "Why is the sky blue?" or "Why is Matt Cooke such a douchebag?" There's probably an answer out there if I looked hard enough, but it's almost certainly not worth the effort. It just is.

So let's try to leave personal feelings aside and just examine the statistical record. While we're at it we can touch a couple of hot buttons: the wisdom of big money contracts for goaltenders, and "clutch" performance.

Luongo arrived in Vancouver amid much hooplah in the summer of 2006. After six playoff-free NHL seasons, he had forced a trade by refusing various generous Florida contract offers. Vancouver was interested, after years of being burned by Dan Cloutier's erratic goaltending, especially in the playoffs. Ultimately a deal was worked out and Luongo became one of the very few Canadian-born stars in the past quarter century who crossed the border heading north, quickly coming to terms with his new team on a handsome four-year, $27 MM pact, making him the highest paid netminder in the league. The new saviour was introduced to an immediately adoring public, and parade routes were planned. Canucks' problems were solved!

It's now four years later, and the first contract has run its course. Was it money well spent? Two analyses after the jump.

The first is a WOWY analysis of Luongo's last two teams, Florida and Vancouver. I've looked at the 8 seasons 2001-10, of which BobbiLu played four seasons for each team. To be frank I'm not sure how much value can be taken from such an analysis, since there are SO MANY other factors at play. But my thinking was, if one team acquired a difference-maker and one team lost one, surely the fortunes of both would/could/should change accordingly.

Uh, not so much.

In Luongo's last four years in Florida the Panthers allowed 965 goals; in the following four they reduced that slightly to 958. In Vancouver's previous four years with Cloutier & Co., they allowed 868 goals; under Luongo that improved all the way to 858 GA. So based on raw goals against, Luongo's new team improved by all of 3 goals more than his old one did. (Both teams actually improved by about 50 GA when compared to league average scoring rates, which increased by about 11 goals a season in the more recent period.)

The standings are less kind than that. The Panthers rose significantly from a .442 Pts% in 2001-06, to .520 in 2006-10. Some of that is due to the change in the GBFL* points system given the addition of the shootout. In real terms of points over league, the Panthers improved by some 13% during the Luongoless period. Didn't help them much, they missed the playoffs every single year. The last year they made it was way back in 1999-2000, the year before Luongo arrived in Florida. (*Gary Bettman's Free Lunch)

Meanwhile, in Vancouver, the team's points percentage improved very marginally from .596 to .604, more than all of which was due to change in the points system. Expressed as points over league average, the Canucks actually regressed by about 3%. They made the playoffs 3 times in each 4-season stretch, with Luongo's team faring marginally better in the postseason than the "Dynasty" Canucks of the early 21st Century.

All that said I think the expectation for any team over a period of years is regression to the mean, which is what we have seen in both cases. Florida likely would have got better with or without Luongo, Vancouver likely would have regressed. All we can say with certainty is that Luongod didn't deliver the Canucks to the promised land.

* * *

The second analysis looks at how each of Luongo's seasons in Vancouver reached its denouement:

2006-07: This was unquestionably Luongo's best season in Vancouver. He won 47 games, posted a career best 2.29 GAA, made the second All-Star team. He carried on with a very solid playoff run, outduelling Marty Turco in a gripping (as in clutching and grabbing) seven-game set with the Stars, then played brilliantly for most of the second-round series against the eventual Cup champion Ducks. Alas it all came crashing down when BobbiLu lost his focus in the second overtime of the series-ending Game Five and decided he could be a referee as well as a goalie. While he was busy barking at the zebra, Scott Niedermayer was letting go a soft 65-footer from the boards that somehow found its way through, ending the series. It was an awful end to what had been to that point a terrific performance. It still left a bit of a bitter taste for Canucks fans to chew on all summer, even as their new hero hadn't yet developed clay feet.

2007-08: The Canucks pulled one of their classic el foldos down the stretch run, blowing a four-point lead by losing 7 of their last 8 games (all in regulation) to miss the playoffs. Luongo, solid for most of the season, came apart at the seams, no doubt in large part to a difficult family situation he faced at the time. Unfortunate timing to say the least, but what we have to go on is the statistical record, which paints a bleak picture indeed. Luongo was pulled in three of his last six starts, posting horrendous numbers over that stretch: 1-5-0, .837, 4.59.The Canucks weren't much help, scoring just 13 goals in support. Still, there were games where a great goaltending performance could have forced overtime or even won it. None were forthcoming and the squad crashed and burned right out of the playoffs.

2008-09: Now captain of the Canucks, Luongo missed time due to injury early in the season but posted solid numbers in the season, leading Vancouver to the Northwest Division title. In the playoffs he had a great first series as the Canucks swept aside St. Louis. Next up were Chicago Blackhawks. Canucks got off to a good start, winning Game One 5-3 despite blowing a 3-0 lead in the third, but it was all downhill from there as the Hawks won 4 of the last 5 to win the series going away. Luongo famously melted down in the decisive Game Six, in which 5 goals of support turned out to be insufficient in a crushing 7-5 defeat. Luongo's numbers for the series were an unflattering 2-4, .879, 3.52. The Canucks mustered 19 goals of support and held the Hawks to 173 shots, but 21 of those found twine resulting in another second-round exit.

2009-10: Another NW crown for the Canucks, although Luongo himself had underwhelming numbers by his usual standards, with his .913 Sv% representing his worst since his rookie season back with the Islanders. For the third year running Vancouver's team goals against crept upward, although they greatly improved their offence in the process. Come the playoffs and the Canucks again managed to win their first round series in a six-game test against Los Angeles. Luongo's play wasn't great with a Sv% of just .893, but he delivered several memorable saves with games on the line. After that came the Hawks and it was a near replay of the previous year. Vancouver won Game 1, then lost their grip as Chicago came on. Luongo was unable to hold a 2-0 lead in Game 2, then came apart on home ice where he allowed 16 goals in 3 games, all losses. Once again his teammates averaged 3 goals of support with 18 in the series, but their goaltender's numbers were worse: 2-4, .897, 3.52. Have a nice summer.

* * *

The Contrarian Goaltender confirms that any goalie will suffer fluctuations in his Save Percentage over short stretches of games. Give or take 2007-08 Luongo's results in the highlighted 6-game segments have been within CG's expected range, albeit at the lower end. The thing about it is that these aren't randomly selected strings of games, but in each case the last 6 games of the season which decided said season in a negative way each time. Luongo picked an inopportune time for his game to go south, three years in a row.

And/or, his team did. As always team results and indivudal results are tied together in a Gordian knot, and there's no Alexandrian solution to easily disentangle the two. The Canucks had trouble with the Blackhawks, from the goal right on out. It would be unfair to place all of the reason for failure on Roberto Luongo's doorstep; besides, there's no room cuz Dustin Byfuglien is already camped out there.

It is the goaltender's lot that such stretches of 5-7 games define entire seasons, be it the stretch drive or each individual playoff series. Whereas a player at another position like a Mikael Samuelsson might see production ebb and flow and have teammates pick him up, when it happens to the goalie for even one series, you're done. To contend for the Cup, a team needs at the very least, consistent production between the pipes, with breakdowns isolated to individual bad games rather than "slumps".

As for the mammoth contract being an effective use of cap space, it's hard to make a case for it, isn't it? Pains me to say it, cuz I do believe in difference-making goalies. Canucks were a NW contender and playoff disappointment before Luongod arrived, and not a huge amount seems to have changed. To his credit, Luongo's got three NW Division titles, and three first-round playoff wins (not to mention that Olympic gold medal), but the Canucks have been the third seed in the playoffs each time and don't seem to be making anything resembling a push to the top of the Conference. When they meet a better team they get beat, and their big-ticket netminder has been unable to steal the series (give or take the Dallas series, which was an evenly matched affair in which both goalies were awesome). Indeed, the last two years he hasn't held up his end of the bargain, and in 2010 was outplayed by Antti Niemi and his $827,000 contract. Maybe the Canucks would have been better served to sink those millions into a stud blueliner instead.

Now BobbiLu enters a Brave New Contract. It's easy to imagine Vancouver fans being less happy with the new 12-year commitment than they were the last time, even though the actual cap hit is reduced due to that ridiculous "retirement contract" loophole. Next year Luongo's actual salary goes from an obscene $7.5 MM, most of any goalie in hockey, to $10,000,000, most of any player in hockey. If you think Shawn Horcoff got it in both ears for not being a $7 MM player, imagine the long knives that will come out in Vancouver next year pretty much anytime Luongo so much as allows a soft goal.

Questions about his captaincy already abound: should any goalie be captain? especially this one??  It pains me again to say that too has been a failed experiment: captain goalies Charlie Gardiner and Bill Durnan remain among my heroes, but then again I never heard their post-game press conferences.

I'm reluctant to put a huge amount of stock in all of the above or draw any rock-solid conclusions, because both the macro- and the micro-statistics conceal at least as much as they reveal. It's just one case study, with lots of mitigating factors. Did BobbiLu let down the Canucks, or did the Canucks let down BobbiLu? I could ponder that all summer long ... ;)