Will Vigneault’s Luongo Schneider Dance Damage The Canucks Long-Term?

Leigh Ramsden January 31, 2013 3
Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images

This morning, Vancouver Canucks’ coach Alain Vigneault confirmed what most people thought he would do – namely, start the hot hand, Roberto Luongo, in the team’s next game on Friday night against the arch-nemesis Chicago Blackhawks.

As usual, Thom Drance over at Canucks Army wrote a great piece breaking down the recently transpired events that have led the Canucks to this point.  I won’t go into detail about them here, since they’re already well-documented in copious media sources.

One loud chorus now coming from the Canucks’ fan base on Twitter and elsewhere in social media and other message boards, is now fully supporting Luongo in his plight.  This base of fans, largely silent in the past when the man behind @Strombone1 was under attack by other elements of the fan base, is now being quite vocal in their belief that Luongo should now be retained, and Schneider should actually be the guy who is moved out in order to benefit the team. While this logic holds some merit, there are a number of arguments on the other side of this issue – but that isn’t really point of this writing.

Regardless of how the media and fan-base is split on this issue, last spring Vigneault chose to start Schneider in game 3 and beyond in the Canucks’ opening-round loss to the eventual Cup champion L.A. Kings.  It can only be presumed that this decision was discussed with team management, since the symbolic nature of Schneider’s ascension to #1 obviously had long-term, potentially franchise-altering ramifications.  The point is:  it seems clear that the organization has indeed chosen to move ahead with Cory Schneider as its netminder “of the future”.

ALAIN VIGNEAULT AND GOALIE MANAGEMENT

As AV has named Luongo the starter for tomorrow night’s showdown with the Blackhawks, this game will mark the third straight start for the team’s “1B” netminder, and will arguably mark the first time since early last season that Luongo has gotten tapped on the shoulder in one of the team’s “statement games”.

The logic behind this decision isn’t difficult to figure out.  As has been pointed out in the media, by trusted names such as Ray Ferraro amongst others, coaches are paid to win games.  In order to win games, the coach will generally ice the team that gives them the best chance to win.

This logic is really what led to AV’s goalie management throughout the 2011-2012 season.  There was a stretch early in the season that saw Schneider record 6 straight starts, all of them wins, a string that began with a minor Luongo injury.  Clearly, although Luongo was #1 at the time, Vigneault chose to ride the hot hand – a decision at the time that caused many eyebrows to raise.  Vigneault also chose to start Schneider in a number of other key games during the season, most memorably against the Bruins in January.  By all accounts, Schneider passed those tough games with flying colours and the team was generally successful.

As mentioned above, after coming of a loss in game 3 of the series against the Kings, AV still chose to go with Schneider.  That was the moment he became the team’s goalie.  Although Luongo had been fine in the first two games of the series, he still believed that Schneider gave his team the best chance to win, even coming off a loss.

So here we are in the abbreviated 2013 NHL season and it would appear Vigneault is following the same logic.  He currently believes that Luongo is giving his team its best chance to win.  The question is, however, whether the coach is seeing the forest for the trees in his handling of this situation.

WHAT BENEFIT DOES THIS PROVIDE THE TEAM OVER THE LONG-TERM?

So we’ve established that AV is merely going with the hot hand in order to give his team its best chance of “success”.  Given the backdrop, which is the impending trade of Luongo, one has to question if this is the best strategy here.

This is most certainly a decision rooted in a very short-term outlook.  While Luongo is playing well, he is coming off two wins against the league’s most pop-gun of offenses.  Regardless, based on these performances, he’s going very well and *perhaps* will provide the team its best chance for a win on Friday night.

But I ask:  who cares?

The team has been middling to begin the season – as it always is.  There are two top-six forwards out with injury, and the offense has been spotty.  The defensive pairings haven’t been operating at their usual top-tier efficiency.  That all said, the past few games have seen some marginal improvements in the team’s overall play and it appears as though the group is headed in the right direction.  It’s a process with this team, as it always is.

So, who cares whether or not the team wins against Chicago on Friday night? If there’s one thing that I have learned over the past few seasons, it’s that regular season performance really has nothing to do with postseason success.  I don’t need to outline why.  Even in the Canucks’ 2011 Cup run, only a brutal defensive zone turnover to Alex Burrows prevented them from being bounced in the first round to the 8th place Blackhawks.  Last season, lightning struck again as the team was completely outclassed in the first round by the 8th place Kings.

Shouldn’t the focus here be on doing what is right in order to get the team, and its goaltending, into the best shape it can be once the playoffs arrive?  If so, is starting Luongo three games in a row ahead of the anointed #1 goalie the best thing to do?  We’ve all seen AV go back to Luongo many times over the past number of years as he went through slumps, giving him chance after chance to get back in the net and work through whatever struggles he had.  I really struggle here with why Schneider isn’t being given the same opportunity now. 

Not only that, but even though Schneider’s ability to deal with this kind of adversity has been well proven over the past couple of seasons, why would the team want to bring this kind of scrutiny on him and his position in the team?  Also, what about the impact on the team playing in front of these guys?  They all say the right things – “We are confident with whoever is in net” – but wouldn’t some consistency be in the team’s favour?  The media are swarming on this, as one would expect, and all players, coaches, and executives are being absolutely bombarded.

Finally, where does this leave the fan base? It was already somewhat split over this issue past summer, but this kind of focus can do nothing but continue to stoke the fires of controversy.

With all of this, you really have to wonder why AV is going down this path.  The costs just seem to outweigh the benefits.  Why is Schneider being “sacrificed” over Luongo?

If the answer is so that the team has its best chance for 2 points in the team’s 8th game of the regular season (17%, or 1/6th, of the season), then I really have to question this decision.  It would appear to be WAY too focused on the short-term.  We’ve all seen how much good this undying desire to get every possible regular season point has done the team the past couple of years: we have been treated to two Presidents’ Trophies.  Yay us.

For me, this isn’t a “goalie controversy”, rather, it’s a “coaching controversy”.  Ultimately, Vigneault is going to have to determine whether he wants another Presidents’ Trophy, or a Stanley Cup.  For me, the decision is clear.