Each year in August, goaltending guru Francois Allaire has a sort of tutorial for his goaltending clients during a two-week stint in Montreal. It ranges from tinkering with one form of the butterfly technique he teaches, to a makeover of all kinds.
When Roberto Luongo attended this summer, most would think he was there for an “att-a-boy” pat on the back.
Far from it.
|Roberto Luongo had an extremely successful first season in Vancouver in which he led the Canucks to a first-place finish in the Northwest Division and a franchise record 49 victories.
Luongo had just finished a highly successful first season with the Vancouver Canucks
in which he led his new team to a first-place finish in the Northwest Division and a franchise record 49 wins. Still, he returned to Allaire to learn more tricks of the trade.
Luongo finished among the NHL’s leaders in games (76), goals-against average (2.29) and save percentage (.921) and he was a runner-up to Pittsburgh’s wunderkind Sidney Crosby for the Hart (NHL MVP) and Pearson (MVP vote by the players) trophies and behind only New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur for the Vezina (best goalie) Trophy.
His ascent to stardom in Vancouver after six previous seasons in the NHL -- one with the New York Islanders and five more with the Florida Panthers -- was exciting. But ...
"We had a great ride, it was fun," Luongo admitted. "It's the most fun I've ever had in the NHL. But all I can think about now is coming back and starting over again with the Stanley Cup as our ultimate goal."
One player is not supposed to almost singlehandedly change the fortunes of a NHL team. But it can happen ... on one of those rare occasions when a very special athlete is involved. Luongo proved last season that he is that special. The excellence and consistency he showed provided a confidence that made everyone around him better.
He traveled all the way across North America from South Florida to Vancouver for a fresh start last summer. The tall, talented 27-year-old goaltender knew Vancouver had previously been considered sort of a goalie’s graveyard, but he made the move with his eyes wide open, full of expectations, armed with a fiercely competitive nature and a confidence that under the right conditions he could conquer the hockey world.
In the end, Luongo nearly did conquer it all. He helped the Canucks, a team that scored 34 fewer goals than they did in 2005-06, reached unparalleled heights -- primarily because of the highway robbery Roberto committed nearly every night.
"We almost come to the rink and expect him to be exceptional," Canucks captain Markus Naslund told me in the playoffs last spring.
"No one can argue that he hasn't had the biggest impact on his team of any player in the NHL this year," Anaheim Ducks General Manager Brian Burke said of Luongo before he faced the Ducks in the second round of the playoffs, where Anaheim needed overtime to beat Luongo twice in the series.
New team. Fresh start for a great, young goaltender who, ironically, had never had the opportunity to perform in the playoffs in his six previous seasons with the Islanders and Panthers. And he did it in a season to remember, finally realizing those expectations that the Montreal native had carried with him since he was the fourth-overall pick in the 1997 Entry Draft, the highest goaltender picked at the time. Especially when he defeated the San Jose Sharks, 4-3, in overtime on the next-to-last game of the season for his 47th win. That total tied the NHL record that Bernie Parent set for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1973-74 and had been broken just a couple of days earlier by Brodeur.
Standing there at the awards ceremony in Toronto last June, next to Crosby and Brodeur, was just the first step for Luongo.
When you ask a tough question, Roberto Luongo never wavers. He looks you straight in the eyes and answers the query the best way he can. Honestly. It’s no different behind his mask, where Luongo is focused and driven.
"The days of saying; ‘I’m young and I’m this or that’ are over," he said. "I look forward to the pressure of the expectations Vancouver fans have for me, but ... "
It was just a split-second between thoughts before he revealed his real aspirations, saying; "I want people to compare me to the Marty Brodeurs and Patrick Roys and Grant Fuhrs of this game. That's my goal ... to be the best goalie in the world."
And Roberto Luongo is only getting better. After Christmas last season, he was 30-7-4 with a microscopic .931 save percentage. Always looking for something to help him improve, Luongo told me, even after getting off to a good start in Vancouver, he made a slight change -- moving his feet closer together in his setup -- so that he can go from side-to-side even faster.
|"All I can think about now is coming back and starting over again with the Stanley Cup as our ultimate goal."
-- Roberto Luongo
"No one works harder," veteran Canucks winger Trevor Linden
said of Luongo.Except for maybe the Devils and Brodeur, who just happens to come from St. Leonard, the same Montreal suburb as Luongo, no team relies on its goalie more. Here’s a statistic that is hard to forget: Luongo faced 199 more power-play shots (543-344), which are much more difficult to save, than Brodeur.
I’ll never forget one general manager, skeptical that Luongo could be signed by the Canucks after they traded All-Star winger Todd Bertuzzi, defenseman Bryan Allen and goalie Alex Auld to Florida last June for him, defenseman Lukas Krajicek and a sixth-round draft hours before the draft, say; "It’s a home run for the Canucks if they can sign him, but ..."
It was clear the executive thought there was no way Luongo would sign a long-term deal with the Canucks. But, after he signed a four-year, $27 million deal, we can look back now and say the deal has been much, much more than a home run for Vancouver. It’s been a grand slam. It has been the final piece of the complete changeover of a franchise, from high-tempo offense to a defense-first system under new coach Alain Vigneault.
That system, plus Luongo’s incredibly stingy goaltending, kept the Canucks in games. And he was even better in the playoffs, when his teammates managed only 21 goals in 12 games -- and their power play fizzled going just 4-for-46, second worst among postseason teams.
"Roberto did his part," Naslund said. "But the lack of offense was the difference in the playoffs. We couldn’t even muster two goals a game some nights. I know I can do better ... and I will next season."
Naslund, who has topped 40 goals three times and 30 goals three more times, finished the season with 24 goals on a team whose offense ranked 23rd in the 30-team NHL. On most nights, Daniel and Henrik Sedin were the only offensive threats for the Canucks. General Manager Dave Nonis hopes that will improve this season.
Nonis is still looking for another big-time scorer, but he did add Ryan Shannon from the champion Anaheim Ducks, Byron Ritchie from Calgary and Brad Isbister, who played in 19 games for the New York Rangers. And he also added veteran Aaron Miller to the mix on defense and goaltender Curtis Sanford from St. Louis to give Vigneault a chance to rest Luongo once in a while.
But make no mistake, however, Luongo wants to be in goal as often as possible.
"I pride myself on being an ultimate competitor," Luongo told me last season. "Everything I do I want to win ... whether it’s playing hockey, poker or golf or any other sport. I know how much every team and their fans in Canada want to win and Vancouver has shown me every bit of that pride of wanting to win."
So does anything scare Luongo?
"I would say heights," he said, blushing a little. "I never go on roller coasters. I'd never try sky-diving. I get scared of heights."
Still, he doesn’t mind climbing the ladder when it comes to comparing his exploits to that of other great goaltenders -- something that will certainly happen more and more in coming seasons for the ascending Roberto Luongo.
|NHL.com's 2007-08 Canucks Season Preview Package:
|Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster