You can just tell that it’s mid-winter in Vancouver. It may not snow in our fair city like it does in much of the rest of the country, but we have our own tell-tale signs that January is in the air, namely the complete absence of "goalie controversy" chatter. The Canucks incumbent starter, Roberto Luongo, is turning in another stellar month of puck-stopping. His routine brilliance in the first month of the year has yet again caused blue-chip back-up Cory Schneider to become stapled to the pine. Schneider may well have plenty of time to work on his commendable debating skills, because Alain Vigneault is likely to ride Luongo’s piping hot-hand for much of the next four weeks following the all-star break.
In October, Luongo struggled and was booed at Rogers Arena. He basically had Canucks fans and Vancouver media breathlessly scapegoating him for the sky being blue, and for the noxious odor of cow farts in the Fraser Valley. In this environment, Jonathan Willis did well to cut through the din, pointing out that Luongo’s early season struggles were nothing out of the ordinary.
I figured i’d update Willis’ fine work from October, and look at Luongo’s historical performance in January. Here’s Luongo’s save percentage over the past six seasons, broken down by month:
|2011-12||0.869||0.924||0.928||0.932||0.918 (34 GP)|
* In early 09, Luongo had just returned from a groin injury, and only played 5 games in that January.
Looking at the repeatability of Luongo’s month-by-month performance is striking. Variance (the principal on which PDO is based) can’t convincingly account for why Luongo has had an October save percentage below .910 in five of six Octobers, only to see his percentage peak, and go well above .920% in four of five Januarys. So what’s going on here?
Luongo, in a conversation last night with Jason Botchford, offered this explanation for his recent run of dominance:
I feel like I’m seeing the puck really well right now. You evolve as a goalie. I was always able to stop pucks. But men-tally I have become stronger over the past year.
Having taken more unfair criticism than any active player in the league, I always figured Luongo would eventually become teflon. Perhaps that’s what has happened, because Luongo isn’t the only person talking about a sea-change in his outlook and demeanor. Take this line from noted critical Canucks observer Marc Spector:
"We’ve been through a lot, as we all know," said goaltender Roberto Luongo, who was stellar Tuesday night in the Canucks final game before the all-star break. "We’ve been through it, once. Especially the fact that we didn’t win, the next time around we might be hungrier, and we might be smarter about how we handle things. Myself included (laughs)."
That self-deprecating joke was not in Luongo’s repertoire in the past. That it now is, is a sign of confidence. It always shows comfort, when you can admit mistakes or have a laugh at your own expense.
Now, I think Luongo has always had a self-deprecating sense of humour (see his TSN poetry, to his comments after Chicago eliminated Vancouver for the second time in a row in 2010). I suppose I wouldn’t be surprised if his delivery seems more natural and confident now than it did in May of 2010, but that said, we’re not talking about Luongo’s sense of humour, we’re talking about his performance!
I’d like to think that Luongo’s mental toughness has improved, even if I’ve never been convinced that the "Luongo is mentally weak" canard was anything more than a myth. But generally I’m skeptical of sweeping, subjective statements along the lines of "Luongo is feeling more confident" or "his mental toughness and focus are the best they’ve ever been." Sure, Luongo played extremely well last night, and even managed to stop 80% of the shooters he faced in the shootout, but I just don’t see this as evidence of maturation, necessarily.
By the numbers, Luongo was due to improve in the shootout! Also, it’s probable that his stellar run of play is merely the continuation of his usual in-season trend: he starts slow, and then his performances gets stronger as the season goes on. When people wanted to ship Luongo to Tampa in October, they would have done well to look at his particular history; and now that folks want to proclaim Luongo a changed-man, I suggest they do the same. This has happened in most of the past six seasons, and it’s happening again. Let’s just hope that the ending, this season, is different.