Roberto Luongo, Not Mr. October

Roberto Luongo is an excellent goaltender. Year after year he consistently posts well above average numbers, numbers that mark him as one of the league’s best goaltenders. He’s also a slow starter, and a little bit streaky – in recent history he typically starts poorly, and interchanges unbeatable months with poorer ones. Let’s look at his work in October for the Vancouver Canucks.

The following chart shows the first three months of Roberto Luongo for all of the seasons he has played in Vancouver.

Season October November December Full Year
2006-07 0.923 0.896 0.912 0.921
2007-08 0.903 0.940 0.942 0.917
2008-09 0.902 0.959 0.876 0.920
2009-10 0.902 0.921 0.932 0.913
2010-11 0.907 0.914 0.922 0.928
2011-12 0.877 TBD TBD TBD

2011-12 will mark Luongo’s fifth consecutive poor performance in October. This compares to a single poor November and a single poor December since 2006-07. We aren’t exactly dealing with big numbers here, but there’s probably enough data for us to start talking about these slow starts as the rule rather than the exception.

A look back through Google’s news archives for October shows that the media as a whole have been quick to recognize the goaltender’s poor performance, but slower to recognize the recurring nature of it. There’s a terribly repetitive nature to Luongo’s sluggish starts, and the resultant criticism from fans and media alike – a sort of ‘wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round’ rendition for NHL goaltending.

There is no reason to think things are any different this year – and so perhaps Luongo’s performance this season is less the reason for his critics vocal disappointment than the excuse.

Luongo, even at his best, has won a few enemies around the league. When he joined the Canucks, he already had a reputation as a guy who couldn’t win when games mattered the most – an artefact of time spent with the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders, teams that rarely played games that mattered when Luongo was with them, and teams that haven’t played many meaningful games since. Even so, some reasoned, if Luongo was really one of the game’s best goalies, surely he would have been able to power those clubs to at least sniffing distance of the playoffs. It’s unreasonable, to be sure, but it has helped feed into the notion that Luongo’s just not a winner. (Other players afflicted by a similar malady include Jay Bouwmeester, Olli Jokinen and Tomas Vokoun – really, any long-term member of the Panthers organization.)

Luongo’s perceived arrogance doesn’t help either. The Canucks’ unusual decision to make him team captain and then later appoint someone else didn’t do good things for his reputation. Comments about how he would quit the game if the league opted for bigger nets, criticism of Tim Thomas’ style last season, and opining on Matt Cooke’s classy nature are just three examples of Luongo’s inability to keep his foot out of his mouth. He’s a guy who could probably benefit from some PR training.

Should that stuff matter when it comes to evaluating his play? Not really. Should Luongo’s penchant for starting slow and then playing lights-out hockey make critics pause before vocalizing their disdain? Probably. Should the relative newness of the season just reinforce that caution? If one really believes that Ty Conklin and Nikolai Khabibulin are two of the league’s three best goaltenders, than no, but otherwise certainly.

Luongo will come out of this slump. The criticism will stop, at least until the playoffs or Cory Schneider’s next hot streak. It has happened before, and there’s every reason to expect the same outcome this time around.