VANCOUVER – He’s probably the best goaltender to ever wear a Vancouver Canucks uniform but Roberto Luongo still battles for respect.
Without Luongo in net it’s hard to imagine the Canucks enjoying the best campaign in franchise history last season. But his critics, and there are many, will argue Luongo was one of the biggest reasons why Vancouver failed to win the Stanley Cup against the Boston Bruins.
There were nights when Luongo was almost unbeatable during the playoffs, including two shutouts in the final. But he also looked awful in three games in Boston where the Canucks were outscored 17-3 and was in net when the Bruins won Game 7 in Vancouver 4-0.
The Canucks were looking to turn a fresh page when training camp officially opened Saturday, but the old ghosts came back to haunt Luongo when he was asked if he needs to prove anything following last spring’s playoff disappointment.
“I don’t think I need to re-establish myself,” said Luongo, who twice has been nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. “I had a great season last year.
“When I think about last year, there were some games that didn’t go so well in the playoffs. You can look at other goalies as well. That stuff happens. That’s hockey. If you look at the big picture I had a great regular season and I thought I had a pretty good playoffs, minus maybe a couple of games in Boston.”
A large crowd turned out for Vancouver’s two workouts Saturday at Rogers Arena. There were cheers for favourites like Luongo and the Sedin twins.
One female fan even yelled out “I love you A.V.” when coach Alain Vigneault took the ice.
With his size and cat-quick reactions Luongo can dominate a game some nights. He also is guilty of giving up soft goals at bad times and his mental strength has been questioned.
During the Boston series, Luongo indirectly criticized Bruins goalie Tim Thomas’ technique on the Canucks’ winning goal after Game 5. He then claimed Thomas never returned his compliments, saying he had been “pump(ing) his tires” all series long.
Defenceman Kevin Bieksa has heard the criticisms directed against Luongo before.
“It’s part of the game,” Bieksa shrugged after the Canucks first on-ice session. “I’m not paying attention to the criticism he’s getting.
“He knows his value in our dressing room. We know his value as teammates. He’s a huge part of our team. We consider him one of the best, if not the best, goalie in the game.”
There’s little doubt Luongo and Cory Schneider will be Vancouver’s netminders when the regular season begins. One question the organization faces is how long can the team keep both goalies?
Luongo, 32, is locked up through the 2021-22 season with a 12-year, US$64-million contract. Schneider, 25, is in the final year of a deal that will pay him US$900,000.
Trade rumours have swirled around Schneider the last couple of years but Canuck general manager Mike Gillis is in no hurry to move the native of Marblehead, Mass.
“We all really like having Cory on our team,” said Gillis. “I know there’s been tremendous speculation of him going here, there or somewhere else.
“We are hopeful to get Cory more starts this year and have Roberto as fresh as possible. We had an awfully long season last year and we are going to need contributions from everybody.”
Gillis was more evasive when asked if the Canucks can afford to keep both Luongo and Schneider in the fold.
“We’ll see,” he said.
Luongo appeared in 60 games last season, the least since 2008-09 season when he was limited to 54 due to a groin injury. He had a 38-15-7 record with four shutouts and a 2.11 goals-against average.
Schneider is still working on his NHL resume. He appeared in 25 regular season games for the Canucks last year, had a 16-4-2 record with one shutout and had a 2.23 goals-against average.
Together, Luongo and Schneider won the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing just 185 goals, the fewest by any team in the regular season.
Some people believe Schneider is good enough to be a starting goaltender on another team.
“I never assume that,” he said. “I’d like maybe an opportunity.
“I haven’t really proven I can play 50 or 60 games in this league yet. I have to start somewhere and build upon that. Hopefully at some point down the road, whether it may be here or elsewhere, I will get that opportunity.”
For now, Schneider is content in his role as Luongo’s backup.
“I’m here to help this team right now,” he said. “I’m not going to gripe or cause any problems over playing time.
“What ever I get I will try to make the most of. If it’s 20 games, 30 games . . . I am going to play as hard as I can in those games. There is no real point in starting any kind of controversy. I will just have to be a little more patient.”
Considering the Canucks’ short summer, Luongo won’t be surprised to see Schneider see more action early in the new season.
“I’m sure Cory will get his games in,” said Luongo. “It was a great tandem and system we had going last year. It kept us both fresh.
“What matters is come playoff time that not only for myself, but Cory’s game is sharp, and I’m ready to go.”
After tasting the excitement of the playoffs, the long regular season may seem humdrum for the Canucks.
With the Stanley Cup loss still burning in their minds, Luongo isn’t worried about his teammates lacking motivation early in the year.
“It fuels your fire a little bit more that we just fell short,” he said. “It makes us all a little bit more hungry to get back there.
“Every game is important, whether it’s October or April. We all know two points can mean a lot at the end of the day. We can’t take that for granted and expect we will be there at the end of April.”