Everyone Else Just Got Better

After wondering about Roberto Luongo for years, I think I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with him. He’s just not good enough for the league he’s in. Wait—just listen, then judge for yourself whether I make a case.

In school, there was always a big kid, right? Someone who could dominate no matter what the recess sport was, from soccer to king of the hill (for those of us who grew up in snowy climates, anyhow). But as time went on, he came back to the group, so to speak. That is, we all got bigger, too. Finally, there was a day when you didn’t notice that guy any more, and someone else took over as leader.

The same was true in sports. In hockey, the first kid who learned to raise the puck got all the goals when we were seven. Before that, all the shots any goalie faced came flat along the ice, and you can go to any arena you want anytime you want and watch the Novice players play and you’ll see the same thing: the puck comes to the net, the goalie lies flat, and he makes the save almost every time. The goals that do go in can often be accounted for by changes of direction or lack of ability of these tiny netminders to propel themselves across the crease fast enough, given that they’re so short, to cover the whole six-foot-wide expanse of it.

But one year, a kid learns to put the puck up, and voila! He (or she) scores five times a game. That lasts for a season, and then the goalies adjust, the defense gets better, and that kid, unless he learns some new tricks, just becomes one of the pack again.

So what does that have to do with Luongo? Look at the fourth goal he let in versus LA Friday night. He makes a stop, knows the puck is there in the crease, and just lies there, doing nothing. Trevor Lewis then picks it up, goes around the net, and scores. Luongo reacts way too late to the fact that the play has changed direction and that the puck is now being buried from his righthand side, where he thought the play died on his left.

One way to read that is that he gave up on the play, and in a sense, he did. But let’s think about why.

He’s always been big. Add the goalie equipment into the mix, and there’s not much net to shoot at. And all the way up the ranks, being big and in command of the equipment was enough. The shooters were neither accurate enough nor fast enough of hand and foot to beat him consistently. Thus he advanced rank to rank to end up where he is.

But things are different in the NHL, where even a fourth-line player, even a fighter, often has supernatural levels of competence with the puck. (Go to a fantasy camp sometime and watch a guy like the Ducks’ Parros, and you’ll see—the skills with the puck are superior. It’s just that he rarely gets to show it given his role with the team.)

I’m far from saying that Luongo doesn’t belong in the NHL. Of course he does, despite the tease at the front of this story.

The trouble is that he’s still playing with the mindset of a guy who doesn’t have to try as hard as he can, every shot, every play. Read it as mental laziness or going to sleep on plays. I prefer to see it as a habit, long ingrained, from always effortlessly succeeding. Never before have shooters been as crafty with rebounds, so deceptive with the puck, so able to put it into any inch of space that he leaves available to them. Now, they are, and it’s trouble for him, and for the Canucks.

This was true of both the third and the fourth goals Friday night in LA’s 4-2 win. The fourth is detailed above. The third sneaks in from in front of the netminder with him huddled in what eventually came to be a ball on the goal line. Because he adopts this position and doesn’t adjust, the Kings score.

This puck should not go in, and can’t again if he and his team have any hope of prevailing against the Kings. In fact, if you look at their goaltender, Jonathan Quick, one thing you’ll notice is that he never, ever stops playing. Combine that with superb flexibility, and he’ll often make a save that a lesser netminder would have consigned to the scoresheet a split second before.

That Los Angeles team, speaking of them, now appears to believe that they can win games, and playoff series, and there’s a long string of examples you can name of what happens when such a feeling takes hold of a club. If Vancouver is going to counter, the first thing that’s got to change is the attitude of this goalie.

It’s time for Luongo to realize that everyone else is just as good as he is. In fact, they kept getting better while he stalled, at least mentally, at a level that got him to the league, with the problem being is that the only way to win is to get better yourself. For this goalie and this April, the team’s post-season depends upon his having such an awakening.

Brian’s newest book, My Country Is Hockey, goes over past and present to analyze why the game means so much in the lives of its fans.

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