At some point during the 2017-18 season, Roberto Luongo earn win No. 454 and 455 to take sole possession of fourth all-time on the NHL’s all-time wins list. What he may not have sole possession of by the time the campaign ends, however, is the Florida Panthers’ starting job.
Given Luongo’s age — he’ll turn 39 before the regular season is through — that’s not altogether surprising. Netminders don’t usually stick around, nor do they remain full-time starters, that late into their careers. But it’s not as though Luongo is going to lose the starting gig based on performance.
In his return first full season back in Florida in 2014-15, Luongo turned in a sound .921 save percentage across 61 games as a 35-year-old. He followed that up with a .922 SP in 62 games in 2015-16, finishing fourth in Vezina Trophy voting at age 36. And this past season, Luongo managed to post a .915 SP in 40 games. Combine his past three seasons and Luongo has the ninth-best SP of any netminder to see at least 100 games.
But it’s the Panthers interest in creating a possible succession plan, a transition from one netminder to the next, that could result in Luongo watching as many games as he plays by the time the late months of the campaign roll around. It’s a plan that was set into action back in July 2016 when Florida, despite Luongo under contract for another six seasons, went out into free agency and inked netminder James Reimer to a five-year deal, and the time might be right for Florida to start the changing of the guard.
As this season approaches, Luongo is preparing to get back between the pipes after coming off of hip surgery that put him out of action for almost the entirety of March and April. In speaking with media, Luongo said that he “feels great” and hasn’t “had any issues,” but admitted that keeping in game shape throughout the season is going to take more dedication than ever.
“I have to stay on top of this, manage it,” Luongo said, according to the Miami Herald’s George Richards. “It’s going to be important for me to stay on top of it and sometimes last year, I was feeling and good and wasn’t on top of things as much as I should have been. That was a mistake on my part…I have to remember I’m not 25 any more.”
Suffice to say Luongo is going to need some time off here and there, which could mean Reimer gets the call at points in the season when the Panthers are facing some tough competition. Luongo has seen this before, though, and if there’s any netminder prepared to surrender some of his starts at this point in his career, it’s Luongo. He split time with Cory Schneider and Eddie Lack during his time in Vancouver, twice losing the starting job when it was questionable whether that should have been the case, and experiences such as those may have prepared Luongo mentally for the reality of splitting time or losing starts again. According to Richards, Luongo said he and Reimer are “both capable goalies” and “a team,” before adding that they both just want to help the team win games.
“I don’t know how things are going to go, but it doesn’t matter,” Luongo said, per Richards.
So, what are the possibilities? Florida could go for the straight split, which is almost exactly what they had last season with Reimer in goal for 43 games and Luongo for 40, or could decide to lean in one direction or the other depending on who has the hot hand. And if you’re Panthers coach Bob Boughner, it would make all the sense in the world to do the latter as the Panthers attempt to shake off last season’s struggles and get back to the playoffs. If Boughner does go the hot hand route and that happens to mean Reimer gets the bulk of the starts against top-tier opponents, that’s absolutely not the worst-case scenario for the Panthers. Given the numbers Reimer posted last season, it actually might be for the best.
In terms of record, Reimer’s 18-16-5 mark wasn’t much to write home about and was about on par with the 17-15-6 record that Luongo managed. But when it comes to shouldering the workload, Reimer stood well above Luongo last season. At all strengths, Reimer posted a .920 SP to Luongo’s aforementioned .915, which isn’t a great chasm between the two netminders, but the play at 5-on-5 is the most telling statistic. In his 40 appearances, Luongo managed a .914 SP at 5-on-5 — not dreadful — but Reimer was head and shoulders above his veteran counterpart with a .933 SP at five-a-side. Only six goaltenders to play at least 41 games were better, including Carey Price, Braden Holtby and Matt Murray. Some pretty outstanding company.
Judging by those numbers alone, it seems as though this transition was bound to happen even if Luongo had remained healthy throughout the past season. He may have six years remaining on his contract, but the number of campaigns he actually plays is anyone’s guess. And when the time comes for Luongo to end what could very well be a Hall of Fame-worthy career, the Panthers are going to want to have their goaltending situation shored up. Giving a heavier workload to Reimer now makes that entirely possible, and, luckily for Florida, Luongo has no intention of making the situation any harder than it has to be.
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