When Roberto Luongo is healthy, he can show flashes of what made him one of the best goaltenders of his generation on any given night.
But for Luongo, who is now 39, those flashes aren’t as bright and frequent as they were when he came back to the Panthers in 2014. In his first two full seasons back with the Panthers, Luongo played in 123 regular season games, including six in the playoffs.
Since then, he’s played in just 75, only starting in 72. A huge part of the Panther puzzle in 2018-19 is not only Luongo’s play but his health. How much can the Panthers rely on the 39-year-old goalie, and how much should they rely on him if they’re to reach their potential?
When Luongo was healthy, which wasn’t often enough last season, he was one of the best goalies in the league. His save percentage was the second best of his career at .929, and with his 12-5-1 record down the stretch, his play certainly helped fuel the Panthers near an impossible climb over the playoff line.
The problem for the Panthers was that no matter what goalie played, they still faced a ton of shots; the Cats gave up the fourth most in the league last year at 2,838. That’s a heavy workload for any goaltender to face, let alone one that is 39 and coming off two seasons filled with serious injury concerns.
Adding to the worries is the Panthers’ schedule, and that they play 17 back-to-backs; the most in the league. Luongo is unlikely to play 60+ games with that schedule; the travel the Panthers face will be exhausting, and there will be a desire for the team to want to keep him as fresh as possible for a potential postseason run.
According to Hockey Reference, Luongo was unusually strong even by his standards in his play last season. His GSAA (goals saved above average, or how good he was relative to the league average in saving a similar number of shots) was 19.32.
That number was the best since he returned to Florida (for reference, he had a 12.34 GSAA in 15-16). James Reimer’s GSAA for comparison was only 0.52 last season. The best GSAA for any goalie last year was Pekka Rinne at 27.49, and Luongo’s number was sixth best in the league.
While it’s not impossible for Luongo to be that good in a bigger sample this year, asking him to do that against the number of shots the Panthers give up for more than half the season is asking a lot of someone who will be 40 when the playoffs start.
While the Cats will be better in terms of their structure and system this year, the way they play will still lead to them giving up plenty of shots and good scoring chances, and the Panthers best chance of not only making the playoffs but making any sort of run in April comes with Luongo between the pipes.
So what would a good season for Luongo look like in both numbers and health?
If he can play around 50 games and start close to that with a GAA of around 2.40 and a save percentage around his career average of .919, the Panthers will probably take it.
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If they rest him in the right spots, and James Reimer can pick up most of the slack and hit his benchmarks with Florida (.916 SV% and 2.76 GAA), then the Panthers will probably be fine. But while Luongo is not the most important player in terms of their potential playoff future, his presence elevates them in a way that few others can.
When you watch how the Panthers play when Luongo is in net as opposed to anyone else, you’ll notice the Panthers are more liable to take risks to generate offense, knowing that if there’s a defensive breakdown, Roberto is more likely than James et al. to bail them out with an amazing save.
That allows the defense to pinch higher and it allows the forwards to take more risks in all three zones to try and push the pace. While the Cats played a similar style with Reimer and others in the cage, it’s noticeably ‘safer’ than when Luongo plays. That small stylistic difference can play a huge role for a team that wants to play high event hockey.
If the Panthers can keep Roberto Luongo as healthy and fresh as possible heading into April, and don’t lose him to any significant injury time like they have in the last two years, their fortunes could dramatically change for the better.
Even with James Reimer playing a similar workload to his last two seasons, the Panthers should be a playoff team, but with Luongo at even 75% of what he was down the stretch of last season, the Panthers suddenly have the potential to exceed expectations.
Luongo is the kind of goalie even at his age that can steal games and potentially a postseason series, so making sure he’s as healthy as possible and fresh for a potential postseason run is paramount.
One of Bob Boughner’s biggest challenges in 2018-19 is making sure his number one goalie is healthier than he’s been while still playing his best hockey for a team that certainly needs him.
It’ll be a tough tightrope to walk, and how they walk it may well determine how far the Panthers go this year.