The Luongo trade rumo(u)rs are heating up and this isn't going away. And since it's being reported that Lu actually asked for a trade, and that he put Tampa Bay #2 on his list of destinations, all of the talk has gotten traction. What's strange to me about the responses from both media and fans alike is how little people are considering whether he's actually a good fit for the team and why. It's all about age or contract length.
Spoiler: I'm not going to talk about his contract.
I get that I'm in the minority around here. That's okay. I'm used to it. After all, I've been the one arguing in favor of Ryan Shannon, Ryan Malone, and Steve Downie (whose loss I still think has hurt the team.) But just as I was sure of those players being contributors, I am sure that Roberto Luongo would work in Tampa Bay and ought not to be dismissed outright.
Before you can answer whether it's worth it to take on Luongo's contract, you have to look at this from a hockey standpoint. No one's really doing that. Because if they did, they'd have to admit that to at least some extent, it does make sense.
Luongo is a very good, even elite goaltender. Yeah I hear your laughter. I hear the "what has he ever won?" remarks. Well, he's actually won quite a lot. He's won an Olympic Gold Medal, for starters. He's been nominated for a Vezina three times (2004, 2007, 2011); he's an NHL All-Star (named to the second All-Star team in 2004 and 2007); and he's won a Jennings Award for lowest GAA in 2011. He's been a Hart finalist and a Pearson finalist.
And he has the numbers to back it up. Among active goaltenders, he's 3rd in number of games played, and if you put any stock into wins as a determinant of goalie quality (I don't), he's 2nd in wins. He has a .919 career save percentage and a 2.52 career GAA. At even strength his save percentage is .928, which is behind only Dominik Hasek, Jonas Hiller, and Roman Cechmanek among goalies with at least 50 career games. It's equal to Patrick Roy and Tomas Vokoun, and just above Tim Thomas's .927. It was .929 this season, the season he was supposedly struggling. It has never been below .908 or ranked below 14th in the league.
In short, Roberto Luongo has been very good for a very long time, including recently.
What about the defense, though? Does Tampa Bay have the defense to support him? Actually, there's no reason to think otherwise. Throughout his career, he has done well facing a lot of shots. In fact, his career high save percentage (.931) came when he faced the highest number of shots per game (34.375 in 2003-04). When he played with the Florida Panthers, they never gave up fewer than 31.2 shots against per game or made it above the 27th in the league in SA/G.
Yes, with the Vancouver Canucks he faced fewer shots against, but Vancouver isn't a defensive powerhouse. Since Luongo joined them in 2006-07, Vancouver's been in the middle of the pack in shots against per game, giving up between 28.9 and 30.8 shots per game and ranking between 10th and 21st in the league. For perspective, since Boucher took over as coach, Tampa Bay has ranked above Vancouver in this category, ranking 6th and 17th to Vancouver's 12th and 21st. In fact, the Lightning's 28.7 SA/G in 2010-11 is lower than Luongo has ever faced in the NHL. If we assume that's the way Boucher's system is supposed to work, it seems like the system could support him just fine.
In the end, no matter who the Lightning get to take over in goal, they're going to have to upgrade the defense. If they upgrade the defense, why won't it work for Luongo as much as it will for Cory Schneider or any other netminder?
The Lightning face a real dilemma in goal, and there's no question about that. The other day, I spoke about the importance of acquiring players who fit your team's vision of what the position ought to be. And guess what. Roberto Luongo fits that philosophy to a T.
Here's the way it goes. These days there are two poles within North American goaltending: the blocking goaltender and the scrambling, athletic goaltender. Blocking goalies like Luongo rely strongly on positioning and pad work to make saves. Athletic goalies like Pekka Rinne rely on their ability to get quickly from one place to another. Blocking goalies will prioritize positioning over the ability to react, and will generally play deeper in the crease.
Now for a brief goaltending genealogy lesson. Francois Allaire (currently the goalie coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs) is credited with inventing the butterfly position and was largely responsible for its adoption throughout the league. He strongly believes that positioning should have primacy over reactiveness. Roland Melanson, currently the Vancouver Canucks goalie coach was a student of Allaire's, as is Luongo himself. Frantz Jean has for years run a goalie school with Roland Melanson. If Luongo did indeed put Tampa Bay on a list of trade destinations, it wasn't an accident.
I won't go so far as to say that the Lightning ought to go after Luongo. None of this takes place in a vacuum, and there are a lot of variables in play here. But before we decide it's a bad idea, it's important to look at it from a hockey standpoint. And there's no question in my mind that he would make this team better. To me, that's where you have to start the discussion.
If you find a player who makes your team better, who can push you to that next level, and get you back to the playoffs, who has a long history of stellar play, and who is available and wants to be on your team, don't you have to at least consider whether it's possible to make it work?