October 21, 2011
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A thing they say about football is that the most popular guys on any team is the backup quarterback.
That's true in hockey too, except you have to substitute "goalie" for "quarterback." And right now that's especially true in the city of Vancouver.
Poor Roberto Luongo(notes) hasn't started off the season particularly well by any measure (the .856 save percentage ahead of Thursday's win over Nashville is particularly irksome), but Vancouver Canucks fans seem as though they would have been all too willing to run him out of town with torches and pitchforks regardless of how he followed up his Presidents' Trophy and Clarence Campbell Bowl-winning 2010-11 campaign.
Luongo has been hearing the boo birds for his poor performances this season and one begins to suspect that it's merely leftover resentment and blame for the loss in the Stanley Cup Final. And granted, this is a town that's willing to burn itself to the ground after something like that, so perhaps rational thought is sooo much to ask, but really, what more can you ask of the guy? He was a Vezina finalist last year and they're willing to push him out of the way after four ugly opening games?
Meanwhile, the Sedin twins have slipped out the back door of Rogers Arena after the three games for which Luongo is under such heavy fire, without even one watery column dedicated to the question of what's to be done about their lack of production. (Like Luongo, the Sedins rebounded last night.)
They did a disappearing act even Luongo would be proud of in the Stanley Cup Final as well, potting a combined two goals and three assists in seven games. Instead, they're being framed as guys who just need a little bit of help (in the form of a big burly man to protect them), but who flatly refuse to do anything but fight their own battles.
All of it is absurd.
As most fans of NHL teams will tell you: World-class goaltenders don't just fall out of the sky. You simply can't get one through a trade these days, and they're certainly not queuing up around the block as free agents to come play in front of a bunch of ingrates who are kicking the crap out of one of the best guys on the planet because he happened to play badly in, what, three games last June?
To be a highly-paid professional athlete whose job it is to play 20-something games a year and be fawned all over by fans and media alike. Gee whiz, he's got a 2.03 save percentage goals-against average in his first two starts this year! His save percentage is .935! Well y'know, hey, one of those games (admittedly the one he was worse in) was against Columbus, who couldn't beat your average ECHL team these days.
But that's always the sexy thing to say, right? "Look how good the backup is. The team can trade the starter." That's the easy part. But the hard part is getting a backup goaltender to actually develop into a legitimate starter.
The only team that springs to mind as any sort of goaltending factory, where they can lose the starter and magically replace him with a player of similar value, are the Nashville Predators. Otherwise, even guys that are excellent backup goaltenders have an extremely difficult time translating that to success as a starter.
Cory Schneider has never played more than 25 games in a season, and he did that last year behind the most successful team in the league, so of course his numbers are going to look good -- particularly because he played just eight against teams that actually made the playoffs. He failed to win five of them.
But OK, let's humor the assertion that a backup can simply become a good starter because he had a good season. In the last 10 seasons, a total of 44 goalies have played largely backup roles for their teams and posted single-season save percentages north of the just-slightly-above-average .910. The number that went on to become successful, full-fledged starters is quite a bit smaller: It's just Marty Turco(notes) (2000-01), Miikka Kiprusoff(notes) (2001-02), Jonas Hiller(notes) (2007-08) and Chris Mason(notes) (2003-04, 2005-06), and the latter only qualifies if you want to stretch the definitions of "successful" or "full-fledged" to their logical extremes.
None of those guys, by the way, played more than 50 games in a single season without having played at least 57 first. So maybe Schneider, with his 37-game career, just isn't ready to be the cure-all Vancouver fans think he will be. Not yet. Maybe in a year or two. Maybe never.
Here's another thing to consider: Tim Thomas(notes) was the best goalie in the league in 2008-09 and rightfully won the Vezina. But he only played so-so hockey, at least by his standards, as the Bruins collapsed against Carolina and got bounced in the second round despite finishing the regular season one point back of a Presidents' Trophy. So the next year, they decided to have Thomas and Tuukka Rask(notes) split time more evenly, and in the end Tuukka took over the starting job as a rookie. And even though the Bruins dropped four straight to the Flyers, Peter Chiarelli reported spent the entire summer shopping Thomas and his ponderous contract to someone, hell, anyone, who would take it off his hands for a reasonable price.
No one did. And, back with the team that tried to shuffle him out of town, Thomas had one of the best seasons a goalie has ever had, and topped it off with his second Vezina in three seasons and a Stanley Cup. Vancouver fans, assuredly, know all about that. Which is what makes their eagerness to 86 Luongo, himself a three-time Vezina finalist, even more puzzling.
There was an article in the Vancouver Sun this week about how Luongo is now quite accustomed to this type of treatment — after all, unless he stops every shot and maybe picks up an assist, he's not living up to his contract. And while writers have, rightly, been quick to chide this type of behavior as being reactionary and over-the-top, they've also helped to quietly gin it up.
To wit, and just from that one article: "Martin Brochu thinks Luongo sucks," and "It's difficult to imagine another month of this. Try to picture another 11 years, which is what the 32-year-old has left on his $64-million contract."
The general thrust of the article was right: That the situation is becoming more tense by the day and may soon be untenable. But it's not because Luongo is off to another poor start here in October — historically it's his worst month behind April, which carries a significantly smaller sample size — or even because he "didn't show up" for the Stanley Cup Finals.
It's because Vancouver fans are acting like spoiled children.
As you are probably aware, the Ottawa Senators are one heck of a bad hockey team. Through the first six games of the season, they have scored just 16 goals (2.67 per) and allowed 30 (5 per). Neither of those numbers are typos.
After their latest defeat, an ugly 7-2 loss to the Flyers that was out of hand less than 10 minutes in, the players held a closed-door meeting. What was discussed? Some people have made guesses.
@Steve_Dangle: "Ok uh...Jason?" "Here." "OK good. Daniel?" "Present." "Excellent... Nikita?...Hello? Nikita?...THEY SENT HIM WHERE?"
@DHSpeedwagon: "Some of us still remember what it's like to go to the Stanley Cup. The other 18 of you don't remember ALF."
@chrissampang: "I'm not sure it's a good sign the Rochester Americans are sending their scouts to Scotiabank Place..."
@ACatNamedFelix: "Does anyone know Dany Heatlely's number?"
And your winner:
@thatchaddude: "Good skate, guys. Who's ready for the game?"
Pearls of Biz-dom
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