Roberto Luongo made it clear long before he stepped on the ice for his first preseason action Wednesday night that he wasn’t worried about the result. For Luongo it was all about the process. And while that’s not unusual for any veteran goalie easing back into game action after a long summer, in Luongo’s case this year is different. That’s because the Canucks’ star isn’t just trying to find his game, he’s actually making significant alterations to it.
Luongo confirmed Thursday he has been asked by Vancouver’s new goaltending coach, Roland Melanson, to play deeper in his crease. For a goalie that always felt on top of his game when he was on top of his crease, trusting his reads and getting out to challenge opposing shooters, it’s a big change.
“It is a big deal. It’s a huge change,” Luongo said after stopping 23 of 25 in two periods of a 3-2 loss to Edmonton. “It’s all fine and dandy in practice, but you don’t know how it works out during a game. Obviously it’s going to be a process to get used to some of those things, but I’m willing to learn and willing to give it a shot and hopefully it will improve my game.”
To be clear, Melanson is not asking Luongo to channel his inner Henrik Lundqvist and follow Benoit Allaire’s inside-out mantra all the way back to the extremes of his goal line. But the long-time Canadiens coach is asking the Canucks veteran to keep some blue ice in front of his skates. For a guy who often felt like he was at his sharpest when there was white ice behind his heels, it’s not an overnight adjustment.
The pay off – and it was on display a couple of times during the first preseason game – should be shorter post-save recoveries for Luongo, who won’t have to move as far to regain his next save position. In fact it should shorten most lateral movements, which is important since Luongo is not the purest skating goalie.
“For me to do it, the changes have to make sense to me, and they do,” Luongo said earlier Thursday. “There’s a fine line I’m going to have to find where it’s just right. I won’t be as aggressive on a shooter but I will be in better position for rebounds and backdoors. There will be give and take there for me to find the right spot where I will be in position for a shot and in position for those other things.”
Look for more on building a goalie-coach relationship from Melanson and Luongo — and how a smaller knob may make the latter a better puck handler in the near future.
Luongo stressed the changes are meant more for end zone play, and that he would remain more aggressive – depending on the situation, obviously – against the rush chances Vancouver has given up so much more often under General Manager Mike Gillis’s more entertaining style philosophy the last two seasons.
“You want to play the shooter aggressively off the rush, but once the play comes into the zone it’s a lot of T-pushes and making sure you are set once the shot it taken,” said Luongo. “You always want to be T-pushing across your crease and playing a bit deeper and being a bit more square to the shot. I felt comfortable doing that and didn’t really get beat off a shot because of that, so just keep working and the more you do, the more comfort level you will have.”
One of the biggest challenges, he said, will be how they handle traffic.
“That’s the one area that I’m really going to have to work hard on in practice to get used to,” Luongo said. “Because in the past I always tried to be on top of the guy, almost engaging him. Like last playoffs, trying to establish position out there first. That’s going to be the biggest difference.”
Improving foot speed with the shorter movements is also something Luongo has worked on daily with the Canucks new full-time coach, who was brought in after Luongo’s long-time goalie coach and friend Ian Clark was fired this summer, a move that the goalie admitted both “surprised and disappointed” him. But that hasn’t stopped Luongo, who twice hired Clark to work with him privately this summer, from so-far committing himself to the changes suggested by Melanson.
“It’s not as long of a T-push as it used to be, but smaller T-pushes inside the crease and the length of it is smaller,” Luongo said of the attempts to quicken his feet. “The quicker you are, you’ll be set faster and in better position to make the save. That comes with repetition, a lot of reps in practice and working on it with Roli everyday so far. And it’s already better since the first day.”
Luongo and Melanson are also working on staying atop his knees and upright – and not sprawling across the ice as often – when the play gets scrambled.
“It’s just that control. You always want to be in control,” Luongo said of post-save recoveries. “It’s more knee shuffles than anything else. Sometimes a quick knee shuffle will get you there, and you’re not as far off as you think.”
That’s especially true when you’re deeper in your net and don’t have as far to travel to get back to your post, or recover your angle and establish the next save position. Luongo proved that with a great save when Oilers’ forward Shawn Horcoff appeared to have an open net, even if the method employed to get across for that save wasn’t at all “under control” or upright on the knees.
“I don’t know if that’s exactly the textbook play there, but if I would have been out above the crease it would have been hard for me to get back on that one,” Luongo said. “You are always going to be in a better position.”
It sounds good now, but Luongo admits the hard part will be still believing it if he starts to get beat cleanly by shooters as he retreats to his net. The ironic part, he said, is that his first instinct when he struggled used to be shrinking back to the goal line, something he was told was wrong and had to work hard to stop doing. So being asked to back up now, even just a bit, isn’t easy.
“Every time you let in a goal you question yourself, but that’s part of the game,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. Obviously you play the game a certain way for many years and to make a change like that is going to take time. I’ve always had that mindset a little bit except that I’ve always played a different way. So as long as things go well, I don’t have a problem with it.”
The interesting part will be seeing how Luongo, who already talked a few times about not wanting to get beat by shots, reacts if things don’t go well. And given his traditional October struggles, it’s a distinct possibility. But Luongo sounded committed to seeing the changes through.
“You have to be open to it,” he stressed. “If not, there’s no point in even trying at all.”