Less than two months have passed since Roberto Luongo hung up his skates for good, but the 40-year-old has already landed the first honor of his post-playing days.
On Monday, the Florida Panthers announced that Luongo will become the first player to have his jersey retired by the franchise, with the team planning to raise his No. 1 to the rafters of BB&T Center ahead of their March 7, 2020 meeting with the Montreal Canadiens. Florida had previously retired Nos. 37 and 93 in honor of former owner Wayne Huizenga and former president and GM Bill Torrey, respectively, but Luongo is the first member to skate in a game with the organization to receive the distinction.
“It’s quite an honor to be the first player to have his number retired by the Panthers,” Luongo said in a statement. “I’m truly looking forward to sharing this special night with my friends, family, teammates and the Panthers fans.”
That Luongo is becoming the first Panther to see his jersey raised comes as no surprise. After beginning his career as a New York Islander, Luongo spent five seasons in Florida and became the backbone of the franchise, finishing top-10 in Vezina Trophy voting in 2003-04 and 2005-06, as well as earning a sixth-place Hart Trophy finish in 2003-04 and a second-team all-star nod. From there, Luongo spent the next seven and a half seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, but returned to Florida during the 2013-14 campaign. Over the past five seasons, Luongo managed to defy his age and piece together stellar performances, including a 35-win season in 2015-16 that saw him finish fourth in Vezina voting.
As he wrapped up his career, Luongo not only did so as the Panthers leader in wins (230), shutouts (38) and games played by a goaltender (572), he also retired as one of only three netminders in NHL history to play 1,000 games, with the third-most wins in league history (489) and the ninth-most shutouts (77).
Now, with the Panthers set to retire Luongo’s number, only six of the league’s 31 franchises have yet to raise one of their player’s jerseys to the rafters. Who could follow in Luongo’s footsteps and become the first retired number for the remaining franchises?
Columbus Blue Jackets – No. 61
You know, chances are that no one was ever going to wear Rick Nash’s No. 61 ever again anyway. It’s not exactly one of those well-worn sweater numbers in league history. In fact, with Nash now retired and into his new gig as special assistant to Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen, there are only seven players in the league – and only three who played more than half the campaign in 2018-19 – who wore Nash’s old digit. (That group does include Mark Stone, though, so maybe there will be a new legion of Vegas-born 61s in the future.)
That said, retiring Nash’s number seems a no-brainer, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the franchise made the move to hang up No. 61 sooner rather than later. Though he departed the franchise in 2012 back during his playing days, he still remains Columbus’ all-time games played (674), goals (289), assists (258) and points (547) leader. He was also the first Blue Jacket to win an individual award, capturing the Rocket Richard as a sophomore in 2003-04.
Minnesota Wild – No. 9
As we inch ever closer to the 2019-20 campaign, we also creep towards the final season of Mikko Koivu’s most recent two-year, $11-million deal with the Wild. And at 36 and with the franchise in need of some refreshing, this could very well be the last go-round for Koivu in Minnesota. Even if it’s not, though, he’s certainly in the twilight of his NHL career and the countdown to Koivu hanging up his skates is on.
No matter when he leaves the Wild, though, Koivu will do so with some noteworthy franchise achievements. This coming season, he will play his 1,000th career game, all of which have been with the Wild, for whom he is the franchise’s all-time games played leader. Koivu, who has 201 career goals, will also attempt to pull ahead of Marian Gaborik (219) for first on the all-time goals list. And the longtime Wild captain – Koivu has worn the ‘C’ since 2009-10 – will also look to add to his franchise-best 688 points.
He’s been the face of the franchise since fairly early in his career, and there is no current or past Wild player more worthy of having his number retired.
Nashville Predators – No. 35
If it weren’t for the seven years remaining on Shea Weber’s contract, there would be an argument that his No. 6 was deserving of the Predators’ spot on this list and not Pekka Rinne’s No. 35, but the 33-year-old rearguard won’t hang up the skates for some time while the 36-year-old netminder is much closer to calling it quits.
Rinne, who was an eighth-round pick of the Predators back when the draft still had that many rounds, has been the backbone of the franchise and a premier NHL puckstopper for more than a decade at this point and he’s part of the very fabric of hockey in Nashville. Four times in his career he has been a finalist for the Vezina, including his win in 2017-18, he’s a two-time end-of-season all-star, has finished top-10 in Hart voting three times and he is far and away the best goaltender in franchise history. Rinne leads all keepers (and is fourth among all players) with 623 games played, his 341 wins has nearly 200 more than Tomas Vokoun, who is second in franchise history with 161 victories and Rinne is the leader in about every conceivable goaltending statistic. Even his career save percentage (.918) is the best of any goaltender with at least 82 games in the Nashville crease.
Hang up his No. 35 when it’s all said and done. Chances are another Rinne won’t come along for a long while.
San Jose Sharks – No. 12
This all comes down to timing and whether or not Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton retire as a pair. If they do, then the Sharks will be able to hoist both jerseys to the rafters on the same night, which would be awfully fitting for the duo that went one-two in the 1997 draft. For the sake of picking one number, however, we’ll say that Marleau goes out first and Thornton hangs around for at least one more season. In that case, the No. 12 is going to be heading to the rafters in the Shark Tank in short order.
Marleau hardly needs a statistical argument here, but we’ll outline it quickly regardless. His 1,493 games played are the most in San Jose’s franchise history. His 508 goals are also the franchise’s most. His 574 assists rank second behind Thornton. And Marleau’s 1,082 points remain the most of any Shark. Add to it what he meant to the franchise as its first true star player and he’s an obvious choice to be the first Shark to have his number retired.
Vegas Golden Knights – No. 29
It’s difficult to pick a player to have his number retired when a franchise has only just completed its sophomore campaign. Statistically, the gap between the best Golden Knights and the middle-six players isn’t really all that large. Case in point, there are 10 players with anywhere from 62 to 134 points, and the top two scorers in franchise history, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson, are tied with 134 points.
So, let’s approach this a different way and consider the player who really, truly helped legitimize the franchise, and that’s Marc-Andre Fleury. His arrival in Vegas gave the Golden Knights an instant face and he has always been an excellent community influence. Consider then that he’s also been a back-to-back top-five finisher in Vezina voting in his two seasons with the organization and he’s got to be the present-day frontrunner for jersey retirement.
Winnipeg Jets – No. 26
With five years remaining on his contract – a deal that stands to keep him in Winnipeg past his 37th birthday – there’s a chance that Blake Wheeler ends his career with the Jets. It would make sense for him to do so, too, because he has really come into his own with the franchise, transforming into a prolific offensive force and one of the NHL’s deftest playmakers. He arrived with the franchise just as its days as the Atlanta Thrashers were coming to an end and has been one of the Jets’ best since they arrived in Winnipeg.
The numbers support Wheeler’s claim to becoming the first member of the Thrashers/Jets 2.0 to have his number retired, as well. By the end of the coming campaign, chances are Wheeler will have surpassed former Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk (615 points) and become the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise scoring leader. Wheeler sits at 586 points. He will also become the third player in franchise history to score 200 goals, too, as he sits eight shy of the mark entering the 2019-20 season.
Others will have claims to the first retirement – Bryan Little and Dustin Byfuglien, for example – but Wheeler seems the best bet right now.
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