Canucks Crease Conundrum: Could Sharks’ Split Work in Vancouver?
The goalies themselves don’t know. Schneider has talked about preparing to play both ends of back-to-back opening weekend games against Anaheim and Edmonton, while Luongo has also said he is preparing himself like he could play one of the two. But Luongo admitted after Wednesday night’s scrimmage win over Schneider that he had no idea how they would be deployed, and that neither goalie has been told about the rotation, both over the weekend and for as long as he remains a Canuck.
The consensus among observers is the Canucks will reverse the roles of last season, when Luongo started 54 games and Schneider 28, though that total included five straight for Schneider while Luongo recovered from a minor injury in late November.
Schneider has certainly proven himself worthy of a bigger workload, changing his style under goaltending coach Roland Melanson to eliminate the excessive backwards flow that left him too dependant on rhythm and plagued call ups earlier in his career. And as Schneider revealed for the first time in Thursday’s Vancouver Province story by Jason Botchford, he has also worked hard to overcome the anxiety that led to cramps that ended his first NHL playoff start against Chicago two seasons ago.
Luongo is also ready to play. Despite lamenting the lack of any exhibition games, he feels his technical game is better than it’s ever been, having spent the last seven weeks working with Francois Allaire in Florida. He’s reduced delays in post-save recoveries and improved his overall balance, staying over top of his knees better, especially on scrambles in tight, reaching less and not putting himself in over-extended desperation situations nearly as often. It’s early, but Luongo has looked very sharp.
So Schneider and Luongo are both ready and worthy. Both are also great friends, have talked about the situation, and seem capable of handling an uncertain job share. But what about a different approach, one used successfully by San Jose in 2006-07, when the Sharks dealt with a potential crease controversy between Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala by rotating them every game?
It started after Toskala, who took over the starting job down the stretch and through the playoffs, signed a two-year, $2.75 million extension. Nabokov, the incumbent No.1 for four seasons, had a new four-year deal worth $21.5 million.
“We never deviated from our plan until there was an injury, and in the end I think it paid off,” then-coach Ron Wilson said. “They can trust me, and I’ve shown I trust them. They’ll always say they should he starting and playing every game. I understand that and would be disappointed if they didn’t. But I think, deep down, they understand what we’re trying to do, and it worked.”
Obviously there are differences in Vancouver. While the Sharks were trying to determine their No.1, the Canucks appeared to make their decision when Schneider took over from Luongo two games into the last playoffs, leaving the Olympic gold-medalist on the bench for the final three games and talking about it being “time to move on” when the season was over.
That hasn’t changed. Luongo still wants – and deserves – to be a starter, and is intent on moving on. But as it became clear that might not happen before a season started, he’s also made it clear he is willing to stick around in a shortened season that could place even more importance on goaltending depth, something the Canucks lack behind what is clearly the NHL’s top tandem.
If they are indeed intent on keeping both this season, there are benefits to the Sharks’ system.
By alternating every game regardless of outcome, San Jose removed many of the pratfalls of a shared workload. The goalies didn’t worry one bad performance could be their last for a while. The only pressure they felt is what they put on themselves.
“I can just focus on my own game and ensure every time they put me on the ice I give my team a chance to win,” Toskala said then.
As much as both would have preferred to play every game, the goalies admitted every second game provided some of that rhythm.
It was a set-up several other goalies around the NHL applauded in casual conversations with InGoal because it removed so many of the off-ice complications associated with a tandem situation. While other tandems that season faced constant questions about splitting the crease, the “who-is-starting-and-why-and-is-it-fair” inquisitions never became an everyday in San Jose.
While every goal, rebound and minute played in games and practice was being hyper analyzed in Ottawa after then-coach Bryan Murray declared “if you win you have a chance to play again” for his tandem of Martin Gerber and Ray Emery, the Sharks stoppers, win or lose, were able to unwind between starts rather than wind themselves up. Nabokov shut out the Islanders in his first start, gave up six (mostly on tips) to Edmonton in the second, and blanked Pacific Division-rival Dallas in his third.
“I have to do my best,” Nabokov said. “If I do that, I don’t see a problem.”
Above all, they don’t have to worry about the goalies struggling with a shared load.
“Competition sharpens them up a little bit, but they’re both good goalies, they don’t need that,” Wilson said then. “You just go and you perform. You get your game in, and then you spend the next day or two with (the goalie coach), and the other guy is ready to go. So you’re always going in fresh. There’s nothing on your mind except the next game. You get to relax.”
Relaxing isn’t something typically associated with competition for the No.1 job. Not everyone handles it well. At least with the equal-time concept, most of the negative pressures traditionally associated with tandems appear to be removed.
Fernandez sometimes struggled with the Wild’s less-equitable tandem, which included going back and forth with Roloson while advancing to the 2003 Western Conference Finals. There was too much uncertainty for him.
“You get on a bad stretch and the other guy is doing well, it’s tough to get in there,” Fernandez told InGoal. “It just seems like you’re going around in circles chasing your tail. It seems like every game you get in there you have to be prepared like it’s your first game of the year, like you can’t make any mistakes. It’s mentally very, very challenging. It’s unbelievably tough.”
It wasn’t that way with the back-and-forth split in San Jose, though it’s worth noting the Sharks escaped a hard decision for the playoffs because of Toskala’s injury. Both of Vancouver’s goaltenders also seem well suited to handle the extra distractions that come with a less-equitable job share, and in a shortened season there is no time to let one or the other play their way into form, something Luongo has needed during almost annual October struggles in regular seasons past.
Of course, this isn’t like other regular seasons. And this isn’t like other tandems.
Maybe thinking outside the box wouldn’t be a bad idea. It worked once in San Jose.