October 04, 2010

Roberto Luongo: Redefining Greatness

Vancouver has become famous for it's goalie graveyard. Between the heyday of Kirk McLean and the arrival of Roberto Luongo almost every goalie in Vancouver has fallen victim to it.

Luongo's arrival seemed to end those days. But a funny thing has happened in Vancouver. Anxious Canucks fans are unhappy with Luongo's play last season, and the gravediggers are getting their shovels.

I think what is needed in Vancouver - by Luongo, by the Canucks and by the media and fans - is a change in philosophy about Luongo's new role. New goalie coach Rollie Melanson - who may be the team's key off-season acquisition - will probably hammer home this point with Luongo and his teammates.

Luongo came in as a savior. He was this spectacular goalie, constantly on high light reels but always on poor teams. In New York. In Florida. Probably ever since he was a kid. Even in Vancouver when he first arrived, he gave poor teams chances to win games, and in doing so he provided hope.

But Luongo no longer needs to steal games or hold his team in there against long odds, praying for a lucky bounce. (Well, not in the regular season anyways.) He is now on a league power house, where the goalie's role is not to spectacularly steal the show every night, but rather just to provide the big save when needed. At least in the regular season the team can outscore and out play the opposition for enough minutes in most games to win. They just need Luongo to be good most of the time, and only occasionally spectacular.

Ken Dryden talked about exactly this in his epic book, The Game. He would know. He played for arguably the greatest team of all time.

Dryden talked about how mental discipline is the key to being a good goalie, but how goalies on different teams face different circumstances. He splits goalies into two categories: "bad team" goalies and "good team" goalies.

In discussing "bad team" goalies Dryden refers to Rogie Vachon, Gary Smith, Denis Herron and Dan Bouchard, who Dryden described as "athletic, technically flawless, but lurches annoyingly in and out of mediocrity."

Dryden further describes these goalies as "spectacular, capable of making near-impossible saves that few others can make. They are essential for bad teams, winning them games they shouldn't win, but they are goalies who need a second chance, who need the cushion of an occasional bad goal, knowing that they can seem to earn it back later with several inspired saves."

Does that not sound like the Luongo we historically know so well?

But Dryden, like Marty Brodeur more recently, could not afford the occasional bad goal. Though they played for great teams, they're job was very difficult if very different.

"On a good team, a goalie has few near-impossible saves to make, but the rest he must make, and playing in close and critical games as he does, he gets no second chance," explained Dryden. "A good 'bad team' goalie, numbered by the volume of goals he cannot prevent, can focus on brilliant saves and brilliant games, the only things that make a difference to a poor team. A good 'good team' goalie cannot. Allowing few enough goals that he feels every one, he is driven instead by something else - the penetrating hatred of letting in a goal."

This is the mental change Roberto Luongo - and Canucks fans - now face. We don't need him to steal games on a nightly basis like he's famous for. Some nights he will need to make two or three good saves. Some nights it will be to thwart a flurry of action, maybe even a whole period of play. There will still be games where he needs to be good for the whole game, but there will also be other games where he may need to do almost nothing beyond routine saves.

Rollie Melanson understands this. He will help Luongo understand this and make him a better "good team" goalie. Now the fans, the media and especially the goalie graveyard diggers, need to understand that this redefinition at this stage of his career does not make him any less of a goaltender. Less spectacular? Potentially. More successful? Almost certainly.

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