2) How many times does Roberto have to redeem himself? I couldn’t believe the racket about Schneider starting game five. Luongo was the only possible choice.
When the Canucks win the Stanley on Monday night, there will be a few things from which I will draw solace. It’s tough to begrudge the Tom Benjamin group of Canucks fans, the 5,000 or so decent people who cheer for the team and were supporting it when the Canucks were terrible, their moment in the sun, even if it’s tempting to let the other two or three million horrible Canucks fans overwhelm them in your assessment of their contemptible fanbase. While the team itself is full of players who you want to experience nothing but failure, I’ve long liked the way that Daniel and Henrik played the game, defending by possessing the puck. Watching Raffi Torres on the bench during G5, I was reminded of seeing him sitting on the bench after G7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, head down along with many other Oilers, while MacT walked the bench, slapping guys on the back and congratulating them on a great season that fell a little short. I’ll be happy for him on Monday.
I’ve also been a long time fan of Roberto Luongo and will be happy for him. I’ll be even more happy for what, hopefully, will be a diminution of the “Luongo is mentally fragile” meme. While that may or many not be true, as I discuss below, it’s hard to distinguish between his career to date and the playoff career of Martin Brodeur to the same age, other than Brodeur had a whole lot more in the way of opportunity.
I was talking to James Mirtle the other night and got to trying to think of a Canadian athlete who’s been under more pressure to perform than Roberto Luongo has over the last sixteen months, between the Canucks’ efforts in the playoffs and stepping into the crease for Team Canada in the Olympics. I’m not sure that I can think of any since the team that played in the 1972 Summit Series. A lot of Luongo’s pressure comes from his reputation as being something less than a big game player, which has struck me as unfair in that Luongo, through no fault of his own, hasn’t exactly had the opportunity to play in a lot of big games.
It isn’t Roberto Luongo’s fault that he didn’t appear in the Stanley Cup playoffs until 2007, ten years after he was drafted. The NHL’s cartel results in elite players being shunted onto terrible, inept teams that are improperly run. Elite players like Luongo are surrounded by players who aren’t good enough to make the playoffs. The Sedins were understandably a bit upset with Mike Milbury after he took some jabs at the the other day; the guy with the real beef with Milbury is Luongo, who got drafted onto a hockey team that was a mess and then traded by Milbury to another complete disaster of a team.
In addition, we have an almost regal line of succession to the goaltending seat on the Canadian national team, with a healthy Canadian streak of patronage. The throne itself is controlled by whichever NHL team happens to be running the national team at the time. If that team has a player who can plausibly considered the best goaltender in the world and he has not suffered a loss that can be blamed on him, that goaltender will hold the throne until such time as control of the national team or a bad defeat happens.
It took an ugly loss in the 2010 Olympics and a management/coaching team that didn’t have a goalie in the mix for Martin Brodeur to lose his spot to Luongo. Of course, if Luongo hadn’t spent his career rotting in New York and Florida, at the mercy of guys who haven’t put together records that attract the attention of Hockey Canada, he might have had his opportunity sooner – few would argue that Brodeur was a better goalie than Luongo in 2006.
As a result of all of this, Luongo’s career has featured few really big games. Outside of the gold medal win, a lot of his great performances have either been in support of a vastly outpowered team (Canada v. Russia, 1997 WJC, the 2006-07 Canucks’ playoff run) or cameo roles in a tournament in which he wasn’t starting (his performance against the Czechs in the 2004 World Cup.) The mythmaking of hockey is such that once you’ve won a Stanley Cup, for whatever reason, your capacity to win the big game is no longer in question. Your play at a certain time might be questioned but not your ability to win. You’re a winner. Is this sensible? I don’t think so, but there’s lots of things I don’t understand.
Is there some basis to think that Luongo blows up more than he should in the playoffs? I don’t really think so. I grabbed his playoff career to date as well as the career of Martin Brodeur to the same age. It’s become a bit more acceptable to acknowledge Brodeur’s playoff failures of late but the period in question here – his career up to 2003-04 – covers the period in which he built the legend. The first chart that I’ve put together is a breakdown of their playoff appearances by save percentage.
Your eye might be drawn to Luongo’s greater frequency of games in the .825 or below range. 7 of his 57 playoff games have resulted in that outcome, compared to 12 of Brodeur’s 143 in the period in question. It’s just not a major difference though – two fewer .825 or worse games for Luongo and he’d be the same as Brodeur. A total of five more shots and saves in two games and he’d be there. Brodeur then owns the majority of the games between .825 and .900 – 17.5% of Luongo’s playoff starts resulted in a save percentage in that range compared to 25.2% for Brodeur. 59.6% of Luongo’s playoff appearances saw him post a save percentage between .900 and .975 compared to 51% for Brodeur. Finally, Brodeur enjoys a substantial edge in the .975 or better games – 15.4% of his appearances ended up there to 10.5% for Luongo.
A further point that bears some mention – the typical Roberto Luongo playoff game features a lot more shots than the typical Martin Brodeur playoff game during the period in question. Luongo has seen 30.2 shots per 60 minutes per playoff appearance. Brodeur, for the period in question, saw 23.5 shots per 60 minutes. That’s a pretty massive difference and is going to affect, in particular, the number of shutouts that each player posts. If you have two goalies, one of whom sees 30 shots per appearance and the other who sees 24 shots per appearance, both of whom have a 92% chance of stopping a given shot, you’d expect the guy who seems 24 shots per appearance to post a shutout every seven games or so and the guy who sees 30 shots per appearance to post a shutout every 12 games or so. Same ability but the extra six shots per reduces the shutout frequency substantially. I’ve put together a chart of the expected frequency of x goals against, based on 30 shots and 24 shots against per game, and a .920 skill level at stopping pucks.
You’ll note that the guy seeing 30 shots per game is far less likely to post a shutout and more likely to have a 7 or 8 goal disaster. Finally, I’ve sorted the playoff appearances of Luongo and Brodeur by save percentage and then looked at the nth percentile for each to see if the dispersion is all that different. It isn’t. Generally speaking, Brodeur has the higher save percentages at each percentile but it’s slight and his overall save percentage during the period in question was a bit higher than Luongo’s – similar dispersion, just with Brodeur having a slightly higher average. There’s not much to pick from there.
As I indicated above, I don’t think Luongo’s going to silence all of the media criticism when he skates around the ice with the Stanley Cup on Monday (or, possibly, Wednesday) but I sure hope this ends at least some of it. There’s not a lot to pick from between his career and that of Brodeur in the playoffs (other than the Stanley Cups, which are a team award) and Luongo simply hasn’t had Brodeur’s at-bats. The meme about his struggles looks a lot like narrative bullshit – there will be a bit more truth in hockey writing if it disappears.