A Rational Look at the Luongo / Schneider Debate

The other day I came across a little back-and-forth blog entry on the worldwide leader of not hockey coverage concerning what the Vancouver Canucks should do with goaltender Cory Schneider. The debate is the same one that any good team has around the trade deadline: do we keep our guys regardless of position or remaining years under contract, or do we trade some guys off for added depth and/or bolstering weaknesses?
Craig Custance argued the only rational side — that the Canucks have to trade Schneider’s expiring contract this month in exchange for skating help, because not only is the soon-to-be 26 year-old scheduled for a huge raise in conflict with the team’s marriage to starter Roberto Luongo, but also because championship windows are only open for so long, and the team is obligated to stock up on as many players that can actually help in a playoff run while the squad is good enough to snatch sport’s greatest trophy.
Scott Burnside argued that the Canucks can only win the Stanley Cup if Schneider plays a decent role in doing so. He went on to state that Luongo “cannot go all four rounds” necessary to win the Stanley Cup. Folks, it’s time for some good ol’ fact exploration, myth debunking and rationality in the hockey media.

Cory Schneider’s contract is up this summer, and he’s probably the hottest name amongst young goalies ready to become full-time starters somewhere in the NHL. This means that he’s going to be offered more than his current $900,000 salary he’s making this season. How much more? Just remember that Mike Smith scored a $2 million per year contract with Phoenix last July based solely on a few good games late in the season, including one in the playoffs. Schneider’s last few years have undoubtedly garnered more confidence in his ability to guard the line than Smith’s had. So… is the number $3 million a year? More? Of course, it will depend on supply and demand, but highly coveted free agents tend to get very good contract offers.
Whatever the offer will be, the Canucks would have to be willing to match it and then be alright with blowing around or above $8 million a year on goaltending. That would be possible, but given the Canucks’ penchant for spending to the salary cap, it may lead to a rude awakening that all of a sudden leaves the team’s skaters downgraded. I know this doesn’t necessarily pertain to next season, but as it stands right now, the Canucks have the least amount of cap room this season of all 30 teams in the NHL.
I’ve written extensively about the need to spin off expiring contracts that a team knows it can’t re-sign. Despite all the man love for Schneider, this situation is no different. The Canucks are set up to compete for the Stanley Cup right now. There is no guarantee that the Sedins will be this good forever, or even next season given the way concussions are ending careers these days. Vancouver has already seen how much Ryan Kesler’s health means to their playoff successes, so why can’t people see the need for as much skating depth as possible during a war of attrition?
If trading Schneider this month can get the Canucks a contributing skater and maybe even a draft pick, the team is almost obligated to pull the trigger. When was the last time a young goaltender entered the playoffs as a backup and won the Stanley Cup? One could look to Antti Niemi in 2010, but by the time the playoffs had started Chicago had clearly chosen Niemi as the team’s number one. Unless Vancouver is planning a similar seat change, we can’t use the 2010 Blackhawks as a “see, I told you so” anecdote. On the other hand, Chris Osgood came into the 2008 playoffs as Detroit’s backup, but went on to win 14 games and the Cup. But one disqualifying piece of evidence is that Osgood had done it before. He “went all four rounds” in 1998, so he can’t be linked in with the Luongo / Schneider debate as Burnside crafted it.
Of course, the whole of Burnside’s and the rest of anti-Luongo nation’s argument is that Luongo is incapable of winning the Stanley Cup. I hate it when I’m forced to defend a person or stance that I don’t entirely believe in, but you’ve all forced me to be Luongo’s de facto apologist. Let’s take this time to get a grip, because if Luongo backstops Vancouver to the Cup this year I don’t want to hear the popular sentiment change. Here’s your chance to take in the facts and decide whether you want to be an anti-Luongo extremist or a person who acknowledges that the future is unknown and that the past indicates that a Luongo-led Cup win is entirely within the realm of possibility.
Why Do We Think Luongo is a Loser?
To debunk the myth that Roberto Luongo is a mental midget who is “incapable of going all four rounds” of a Stanley Cup playoff, it’s important to go back and figure out why we have this abstract feeling in the first place.
I remember when I used to waste my time watching college football. There was one particular game in 2007 when USC traveled to Nebraska. I remember watching the Trojans dismantle Big Red, and thinking, “Wow, I forgot that playing football really well was what USC actually did.” Over the previous five seasons, the USC Trojans football scene was surrounded by such hyperbole (“best team ever in 2005”… until they lost) and celebrity (akin to L.A. Lakers games) that I had forgotten they were at their core a highly successful amateur football team. Like when the rock star dominates the pages of the pseudo-tabloids, it’s easy to forget sometimes what the star actually does.
I think that while a lot of the Luongo hate is based in recent playoff losses, more of it is based in… we forget. Prior to 2007, Roberto Luongo had never played in a playoff game at the NHL level. But that 2006-07 season was his first in Vancouver, and it is remembered as an absolute stinker for Luongo because of the way that it ended, with him seemingly complaining to the referee seconds before allowing a soft wrister from 57 feet out.
Here’s how that ’07 playoff series ended

But even in that game, Luongo stopped 50 of 52 shots. In his first career playoff game a few weeks earlier, he saved 72 of 76 in a win over Dallas. His GAA for the 2007 playoffs was 1.77, and was accompanied by a .941 save percentage. These brilliant stats don’t account for the fact that the Canucks were beaten by the eventual champs, the Anaheim Ducks, who many still regard as one of the best teams in recent memory. But nobody cares to look up the numbers, because Luongo screwed it up. I believe this lapse in concentration has led to all of the current Burnside-esque assumptions about Luongo’s supposedly low mental strength, but most people would need some time to remember this root of the argument.
The following season was a bad one for Vancouver, as they missed the playoffs and caused the media to pick up the “blow up the team” reaction, which in some ways was followed by team brass. Some of the old guys were out, and the team started to look like its current self around the 2008-09 season. One quick note about 2007-08: Luongo had a 2.38 GAA and .917 save %. Just sayin’.
2008-09 was another good season for Luongo, as he slightly improved his regular season stats from the prior year. The playoff exit came at the hands of the young and uber-talented Chicago Blackhawks in the second round. Despite the clincher being a 7-5 win for Chicago, Luongo still sported a so-so 2.52 and .914 in those playoffs. And here’s another point: the idea that this was an upset is misguided. Vancouver had home ice solely based on winning the weak Northwest division. The Canucks gained 100 regular season points to the Blackhawks’ 104. The better team won.
The following season was easily Luongo’s worst. He brought a 2.57 and .913 into the playoffs, and put up numbers that were much worse once he got there. The 3.22 GAA was not good enough, and an .895 save % is simply never going to win Stanley Cups. But this playoff was again lost to the Blackhawks, who went on to win the Cup in a finish that surprised exactly nobody. The Blackhawks were the odds-on favorite to win the thing to begin with. And he did win the Olympic gold medal game in overtime at home, and there has never been more pressure on him than in that game.
The 2010 series against Chicago was a stinker, as only one game of the six was decided by as little as two goals. Luongo was not very good. But anyone watching the series knew who the better team was anyway. The mark of a goalie who cannot get it done is that he fails despite having the better team in front of him. No sane person would argue the 2010 Canucks were better than the 2010 Blackhawks.
Then there was last year, when Luongo put up much better regular season numbers and in doing so was a finalist for the Vezina. His playoff stats were almost equal to those from the 2009 playoff season, except this time, his team made it fifteen games further. How does one explain that? One possible explanation is that the Canucks were a much better team in 2011 than in 2009. I think that’s a big part of it. Another explanation is that 2011 was a weak year for Chicago, who lost to Vancouver in seven games after not being able to find the defending champion magic. I would even agree with that assessment.
Chicago was down last year, and Vancouver still needed OT of the seventh game to finish them off. But here’s the point — they did finish them off. And Luongo was clutch in the 2-1 win to close things out. He was equally clutch in two shutouts during the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston, one of which being the at-the-time “must win” Game 5 on home ice, where the Canucks prevailed by a goalie-friendly score of 1-0. Not a lot of mental weakness there. So why do we still spew the same tired analysis of his so-called mental weakness five years after the embarrassing playoff exit?
Because thinking is hard, and the story of life and reality is so much more comprehendible once we start using motifs and putting everybody in their box. Few people want to acknowledge that the future is unknown and many different results are possible. Ideologies are preferred by the less intellectual; extremism and bigotry are on the particularly non-thinking side of the spectrum. So here’s one that makes it easier: Luongo is a loser who always loses and therefore will always continue to lose, no matter the facts, moving parts or reality that surrounded past losses or future outlooks. There, we did it! We came to an absolute conclusion. Doesn’t that feel better and safer than contemplation?
Now that we’ve rooted out the source of the widespread anti-Luongo sentiment, let’s go fact finding.
Luongo Has Won Pressure Packed Games
We have this thing called the Triple Gold Club that includes players who have won the Stanley Cup, IIHF World Championship, and an Olympic gold medal in their careers. These players are seen as inarguable winners.
Luongo needs only the Stanley Cup to join this list.
In winning the gold medal in 2010, Luongo led Team Canada through four elimination games. The last two were 3-2 victories. The Games were in Vancouver. The entire country of Canada was demanding a gold medal and nothing less. Luongo won the games.

You think Luongo would have gotten out alive if he had lost this game?

During last year’s playoffs, Luongo was the winning netminder in two of the three games that he started when facing similar pressure. He won Game 7 against Chicago, he won Game 5 against Boston, and lost Game 7 against Boston. Before we write off that fifth game of last year’s finals, let’s think about what a Canucks loss would have meant. It was one of those clichéd “closest thing to a must-win” game. Vancouver won it 1-0. It looked like this:

And that seventh game that proved once and for all that Luongo didn’t have what it takes to “go all four rounds,” well, Vancouver scored 0 goals in that game anyway. Boston won and Vancouver lost, but the three wins the Canucks did get were largely influenced by Luongo. Show me the loss in which Luongo was the difference.
Luongo Has Gone “All 4 Rounds”
Deciding games are always the end of the chapter. Many underdog teams hope to even make the seventh game of a given series, despite the fact that it will be a road game, because “anything can happen in a one-off situation.” Fact: Luongo made it to the seventh game of the final round. Yes, the Canucks had home ice and lost. Yes, he allowed too many goals in Games 6 and 7, when the Cup was one victory away. But the argument that he “cannot go all four rounds” is not at all supported by the evidence.
Rocky & Apollo after the first fight

In Rocky, it was the Italian Stallion’s mission at the Spectrum to “go the distance” with heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. Despite Rocky Balboa’s split decision loss, he is professionally proud that he “went the distance” with the champ. A fifteen-round split decision loss is about as close as one can get to actually winning. So is losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
If Luongo’s Past Disqualifies Him from “Going All 4 Rounds” & Winning the Cup, Then Everyone Else’s Does Too
If we’re going to say stupid things like, “The guy who got to the final game of the final round can’t go all four rounds,” then no other goalie who has yet to win the Stanley Cup can go all four rounds and win it either. This conclusion is of course asinine, but it logically follows from Burnside’s argument.
Here is the list of current NHL goaltenders who have shown they can “go all four rounds” and win the Cup, since we’ve determined that getting the the seventh game of the Finals is not doing so: Martin Brodeur (comical at this point), Nikolai Khabibulin (is there anyone more unlikely given age and team?), Cam Ward, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Marc Andre Fleury, Antti Niemi and Tim Thomas.
Hey, a betting man may love the idea of getting Boston, San Jose and Pittsburgh against the field when it comes to winning the Cup this year, but to say that these are the only teams that have a shot in 2012 because they’re the only teams with goalies who have done it before is so ignorant that it really doesn’t warrant all of the contemplation we’ve given it just on this blog entry. But sometimes absurd things have to be called out.
Will Luongo ever win a Stanley Cup? I don’t know, although I would say the likelihood substantially drops if this isn’t the year. But he’s capable of doing so, and let’s not forget two key facts about the way everybody analyses sport.
First, too many of us have become obsessed with the destination. Putting all of the emphasis on finishing first is a good way to promote actually finishing first, but it also causes us to forget just how hard and statistically unlikely it is for any one team or person to actually finish first, especially in a league of 30 teams with a salary cap.
Not appreciating the journey also has some insane side effects, aside from the obvious obsessing over the destination. It causes us to demand ends to stories far too quickly. Remember, before Luongo sucked and was incapable of winning, he was young and awesome and the highest goalie ever drafted at the time and “if only he could get out of Florida he could really be a winner.” He’s lived through just four playoff seasons, and only one with a legitimate Cup contending team, but now he’s done and dusted. He sucks.

Photo via
Remember when Luongo was the hot 26 year-old that just needed to get out of town?

The Buildup Always Precedes the Tear Down
I’ve yet to hear anyone point out the hypocrisy needed to declare Luongo a failure while touting the Stanley Cup credentials of Schneider. Let’s not forget that six years ago Luongo was in a similar position to Schneider. The talk was, “Man, that Luongo sure is good but he’s stuck in a hockey black hole with Florida. If only he could get out.” While Luongo had been the Panthers’ starter for a bit, in contrast with Schneider’s zero seasons as an NHL starter, the sentiment and their ages (26) at the specific point are very similar. Since finishing first and winning titles is very difficult, is there any doubt that in six years time we’ll be doing the same deconstructing of Schneider’s game, barring a Stanley Cup somewhere between now and then? Not bloody likely.
Photo via vancouversun.com
Now Schneider’s the fawned-over mid-20s goalie that needs a new spot

I’m not sure how to prove this as “fact,” but there is no way at this current moment that the statistical odds of Vancouver winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 are noticeably greater with Schneider in net than they are with Luongo. If you disagree with me, then you almost certainly also believe that Tim Tebow is a good NFL quarterback and other various illogical, irrational, bad takes that are wholly unsupported by any critical analysis or evidence. But I’m not talking to those people, because if you’re still reading this you’re obviously a smart person capable of thought. Help me help you. Let’s clear our heads of the lazy, all too easy “Luongo sucks” garbage.
Do I believe Roberto Luongo is the best goalie in the NHL? Not at all. I’ve been a Henrik Lundqvist honk for years. Do I see issues with the way the Canucks have exited the playoffs in the last four tries? Sure. The only game in which Luongo played well and still suffered elimination was that 2007 blunder in Anaheim, with two blowouts from Chicago and one from Boston coming since. Am I picking the Canucks to win the Cup this year? I don’t think so, but we’ll see come April.
One Goalie Must be Traded this Month
My point is this: the championship window is open right now for Vancouver. It won’t be for long, if history of sport is any indication. This spring should provide the Canucks another opportunity to achieve the greatest success in hockey while offering their mobbish fan base the spiteful victory they may not know how to handle.
The move is simple. If the Canucks do not want to or cannot trade Luongo and the remaining nine years on his contract with the intention of moving forward with Schneider as the starter in the fall of 2012 and beyond, then they should definitely trade Schneider for something that will help them win the Stanley Cup in four months. If they think that letting Schneider play out the string, sit the bench (or even play) for another elimination, and sign a contract to be someone else’s starter is the smart move, they may want to re-read this sentence.
Fan sentiment changes over time, and ultimately is based solely on titles. To let Schneider walk for free in July and end up with zero Stanley Cups in Vancouver ten years from now would be unacceptable. To trade Luongo and end up with zero Stanley Cups in Vancouver ten years from now would be unacceptable, albeit popular for a short period of time. To trade Schneider now in exchange for a deeper squad that allows for a more honest run at the Cup this year while also selling the fans on the impossibility of re-signing him this summer would be by far the most acceptable move to a fan base that, like all others, is fickle, vindictive and a prisoner of the moment.
The Canucks should not give in. They hold a very valuable piece that a few teams may covet. No team ever plans on winning the Stanley Cup with its backup goaltender, and therefore, if all goes well the team will not need to use this valuable piece until they no longer own it. They are married to the man who sits in front of the player in question. The decision is obvious: sell, sell, sell. In the interest of the sporting attitude, go for it. Because what’s another playoff loss going to do for you moving forward? Nothing except more whining and riots.

The only way keeping Schneider through the playoffs makes sense is if the Canucks’ skaters suffer little to no injuries. Good luck with that.

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