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Numbers vs. Narratives: Roberto Luongo and the Hockey Hall of Fame

The four-time All-Star has some of the best numbers the sport has ever seen. Will that be enough to punch his ticket?

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(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Few players in the sporting world have been as polarizing this century as Roberto Luongo.

Perhaps none have. And I can’t think of any player—in any sport—that has toed the line so frequently between dominance and haplessness, acclamation and ignominy, underdog and villain.

Luongo has played more roles than Johnny Depp. He’s been the prodigal amateur, becoming the highest-drafted goalie in NHL history (at the time) when the Islanders took him fourth overall; he’s been the anonymous superstar, standing on his head for a half-decade in hockey’s No Man’s Land; and he’s been everyone’s favorite player to hate, frequently meshing regular-season brilliance with agonizing playoff failures in Vancouver while starring in the sport’s most insufferable soap opera in recent memory.

He’s back in Florida and is off to a strong start behind the young Panthers defense, but two things have remained constant throughout this saga. One, Luongo is very aware of his reputation (seriously, follow his hilarious Twitter account), and two … well, he’s been a damn good goalie over the last 15 years. Maybe one of the best ever.

Allowing six goals on 28 shots in games six and seven of the Stanley Cup can warp the public’s perception of a player, but the greater body of work—all 24,000-plus saves of it—is still quantifiable and immune to any retcon.

Admittedly, the argument for Luongo’s Hall-of-Fame bid is almost entirely statistical, but numbers never lie; only people with agendas do. Courtesy of Hockey-Reference, we can examine various components of the 35-year-old’s resume and see where he stacks up to his fellow goalies both over the course of his career and those already enshrined in Toronto.

Wins

Excluding his 24-game game stint as a 20-year-old backup in New York, only Martin Brodeur has won more games between the pipes than Luongo this millennium:

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Not coincidentally, those two played more than a hundred games than anyone else over this timeframe, but both deserve credit for being consistently healthy enough (and frankly, good enough) to don a mask and pads almost nightly for a decade-and-a-half. Given how fungible the position has proven to be beyond the truly elite netminders, an asset of that caliber of consistency is tremendously valuable. Luongo’s overtime-excluding winning percentage of 55.2 seems unimpressive at face value—it’s lower than all on this list but Tomas Vokoun and Jose Theodore—but keep in mind that he logged five seasons for the sad-sack Florida Panthers, who have infamously made the playoffs just once since 1999. The wins would come in Vancouver, where Luongo racked up six of his seven 30-win seasons and peaked with a ridiculous 47 wins in 2006-2007 (good for second all-time).

How does that raw win total compare historically?

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Everyone above Luongo was a slam-dunk choice for the Hall of Fame, will be soon (Brodeur), or is a borderline case that either happened to play forever (Curtis Joseph) or anchor a lot of really good teams (Chris Osgood, Mike Vernon). Goalie wins have certainly become easier to come by since the NHL’s introduction of the shootout, but only 30 goalies can say they have won 300 games in their careers, and Luongo will probably be eighth on this list by the end of next season (barring injury).

For a guy whose most memorable games over the years have usually been losses, becoming hockey’s eleventh 400-win goalie will be a helluva accomplishment.

Saves & Shots Faced

(Rick Ernst/Canwest News Service)

(Rick Ernst/Canwest News Service)

I can’t think of a better contrast in statistical profiles between goalies than Brodeur and Florida-era Luongo. Allow me a moment to contextualize just how freaking good Luongo was as a Panther.

2000-2006 Games Wins Losses T/O SV% GAA Shutouts GPS
Brodeur 366 202 115 47 0.911 2.22 38 59.9
Luongo 317 108 154 41 0.920 2.68 26 76.0

These two were the premier netminders in hockey between 2000 and 2006. Along with Capitals workhorse Olaf Kolzig, Brodeur and Luongo ranked at the top of the league in saves, shots against, shutouts, and point shares through the first half of the decade, but the debate looks pretty settled based on the numbers above. Aside from a small disadvantage in save percentage, Brodeur won almost twice as many games as Luongo! Open and shut case, right?

Not quite. Everyone knows that Brodeur played on what was inarguably the league’s premier defensive team which dramatically lowered his workload (and the quality of those shots), and it was one of its best franchises overall; New Jersey went to four Stanley Cup Finals in nine seasons at one point, and the Devils earned less than 100 points in just three seasons between 1993 and 2012 (discounting the lockout-shortened 1994-1995 campaign). But simply saying one goalie played behind New Jersey’s defense and one played in Florida—while self-explanatory—probably doesn’t state enough just how apart these teams were in skill and talent during Luongo’s stay. You have to see it.

NJ vs. FLA Shots For Shots Against
Shot Totals New Jersey Florida New Jersey Florida
2000-2001 2,590 2,170 2,022 2,550
2001-2002 2,445 2,205 1,892 2,658
2002-2003 2,601 2,229 1,929 2,718
2003-2004 2,433 2,273 1,997 2,821
2005-2006 2,396 2,724 2,400 2,848
Totals 12,464 11,601 10,240 13,595
Shot % 54.9 46.0 45.1 54.0

So … yeah. Luongo and his backups saw 3,355 more shots than Brodeur and Co. over those five years, and they never once tended the net for a team that out-shot its opponent over the course of the season. We don’t have Corsi data prior to 2007-2008, but this essentially tells the same story; there is an extremely high correlation between puck possession and winning hockey games, and those who consistently out-shoot their opponents are generally the ones who own the ice. To put the above five-year totals into perspective, New Jerseys 54.9 SF% would have come in just behind the twin possession-monsters of Chicago and Los Angeles last season, while Florida’s 46.0 would have finished 27th in the league … only above Edmonton, Toronto, and blatantly-tanking Buffalo.

Luongo’s win-loss total suddenly makes a lot of sense. But just how impressive is that .920 save percentage?

2000-2006 Shots Against Saves Goals Allowed
Brodeur 9,073 8,263 810
Luongo 9,960 9,164 796

That .009 advantage Luongo sports over Brodeur may appear miniscule, but he allowed 14 less goals than Marty—one of the consensus five-best goalies in history, mind you—despite facing 887 more shot attempts. And, well … damn. How many more games would Luongo have won for a team that wasn’t freaking terrible?

This isn’t meant to pick on a bona fide legend like Brodeur, but he won two Vezina Trophies and was named to three All-Star games during this sample. Luongo? One All-Star appearance, one third-place finish in Vezina voting. Despite back-to-back seasons in which Luongo logged 72-plus games and posted the two highest totals ever for saves and shots-faced, Luongo was never really regarded as the best goalie in the game despite all evidence pointing exactly to that fact. The joys of playing in Miami.

Anyway, Luongo will be fourth all-time in shots against and saves by the end of this year. Ho-hum.

Save Percentage

Comparing save percentage across decades is pretty pointless. Not only were saves not tracked as a stat until 1984, but Patrick Roy’s career .910 mark would have been good for 43rd in the league last year. Ed Belfour’s .903? 51st. Moving on.

Luongo is tied for sixth all-time in save percentage among goalies who have stopped at least 2,000 pucks, though, and the only guys in the top-25 who are within 10,000 shots-against of him are Dominik Hasek, Henrik Lundqvist, and Vokoun. He led the NHL in save percentage as a Panther and was seventh as a Canuck, but again, that lowlight reel against Boston would make you believe Luongo couldn’t stop a beach ball in Vancouver.

Hockey-Reference’s nifty Goals Allowed Adjusted stat (GA%-) calibrates save percentage for era, where a 100 is average and lower is better. Luongo comes in a two-way tie here for fourth all-time with his nemesis Tim Thomas, and the only three above him are Hasek, Roy, and Lundqvist. Is the Hall of Fame picture starting to become a little clearer?

A goalie’s save percentage is sort of like interception rates for quarterbacks, in that they are incredibly unstable from year-to-year except for the truly elite. It’s difficult to quantify just how valuable it is to have a player in net as good (and low variance) as Luongo when the league-average alternative is so volatile, but the next statistic attempts to do just that.

Point Shares

(Robert Mayer/USA Today Sports/Reuters)

(Robert Mayer/USA Today Sports/Reuters)

What Point Shares are: a quick-and-dirty approximation of how conducive a player was to a team’s win total over the course of a season.

What Point Shares aren’t: an exact measure of value that perfectly quantifies a player’s on-ice (and economic) worth.

Goalie Point Shares (GPS) is not WAR. It is not trying to be WAR. Hockey inherently has far more statistical entanglement to its structure than baseball, which is mostly predicated on one-on-one match-ups that produce highly empirical results; it is far more difficult to isolate Sidney Crosby’s performance from his teammates than it is, say, Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw’s. But with enough of a sample size, we can get a pretty good idea on just how good a goalie really is.

And according to GPS, Luongo has been more responsible for his teams’ regular-season win totals since he entered the league than any other netminder … by a mile.

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Again, this does not suggest that Luongo is better than Brodeur or Lundqvist or Tuukka Rask, who can all lay reasonable claim to being the best goalie in the world at some point this millennium. But no one has stopped more shots than Luongo over the last 15 years or has done it so consistently, so it makes sense that he’s king of this category. If you had the power of hindsight on December 31, 1999 and could pick one goalie to stick between the pipes from then until Now! 52 hit shelves, you’d have to be insane to pick anyone other than Luongo. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement.

Predictably, Luongo cleans up in GPS in large part because of his days as a brick wall in the Sunshine State. Brodeur’s 48-win campaign in 2006-2007 prevented Luongo from leading the league in that metric for four-straight seasons, and he owns three of the top-ten marks in history (with his remarkable .931, 2,303-save, seven-shutout year in ’03-’04 topping the list). Luongo registered double-digit point shares in every season from 2000-2011 and is well on his way to registering his 13th overall, which would break Roy and Tony Esposito’s record of a baker’s dozen.

Where would that place him historically? Oh, just third all-time.

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International Performance

aug2109_lou01_b

Finally, some qualitative analysis!

… although there isn’t much to say here. Luongo played 307 of 431 minutes for the 2010 Gold Medal Canadian team and was spectacular behind the world’s best defense, stopping 114 of 123 shots for a .927 save percentage and 1.76 goals against average. He was originally the backup before being asked to save the day after Brodeur’s abysmal performance against the United States in the preliminary round, and Lu served his country capably while playing in front of adoring Vancouver crowds. This was the zenith of his career.

Besides his 2010 heyday, Luongo registered a .929 save percentage as Brodeur’s backup in 2006 and stopped all 23 shots he saw in his lone start in Sochi, a round-robin shutout of Austria while serving behind Carey Price. As one of hockey’s more decorated Olympians playing for the sport’s Mecha, his conquests abroad should serve as a resume booster and some needed goodwill.

Playoff Woes

And there’s the rub.

Luongo is the NHL’s playoff goat—Peyton Manning in skates, Alex Rodriguez on ice. His annual struggles with the Blackhawks marinated that reputation until the collapse against Boston cooked it to a crisp.

Never mind the fact that there is practically no observed correlation between a goalie’s regular-season performance and how he fares in the playoffs. Luongo’s .916 postseason save percentage barely deviates from his lifetime mark of .919, and … okay, we really can’t ignore goalie randomness. You read that right the first time—there is no statistical connection between how a goalie performs in the regular season and how he does in the postseason in the same calendar year, let alone from different seasons. This is the highest variance position in the highest variance sport in the wide world of athletics, and consequently, replacement level trends uncomfortably close to the league average.

Luongo’s 1,939 playoff save attempts are scantly more than the workload he faces over the course of an average season. Given the instability exhibited in most Vezina contenders’ save percentages over the last several seasons (there are countless examples to parse through, but are any better than Craig Anderson?), perhaps playoff “choking” is more of a byproduct of sheer randomness than a lack of mental fortitude.

No goalie has ever looked more impenetrable than the Ducks’ Jean-Sébastien Giguère in Anaheim’s improbable 2003 Stanley Cup run, but his .945 save percentage and 1.62 GAA ballooned to .864 and 3.40 in Giguère’s next playoff appearance. It makes no sense that Giguère would lose that elusive edge between then with mere regular-season games scheduled as an interval, right?

I don’t think you could find two hockey fans who would have taken Luongo in net come playoff time over the former Conn Smythe winner, but man, that makes us sound like one silly bunch. After all, owning a ring is how Corey Crawford, Cam Ward, and Marc-Andre Fleury became filthy-f’ing-rich.

Final Thoughts & Stat-Dumps 

  • After the big three of Brodeur, Hasek, and Roy, there is clearly an argument for Luongo being the fourth-best goalie in the NHL since save percentages started to be recorded, and I would feel comfortable with lumping Lundqvist into that group of über-elites. Rask is the only active netminder I could see surpassing one of them.
  • I mentioned WAR and the theoretical difficulty of transitioning such a metric to hockey, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that Tom Tango’s adolescent version of the system places Luongo fourth among post-1984 goalies in wins above a hypothetical replacement-level player (defined here as being .006 worse in save percentage than the league-average netminder). Luongo’s 2003-2004 season ranks as the most valuable in recent history.
  • Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) is another value-approximating metric that measures exactly what it says it does—how many goals a player prevented above what a league-average goalie could have done in his place based on his team and individual performance. Luongo actually finishes third all-time in this, saving 25 more theoretical goals than Brodeur. I like this stat because it doesn’t just award a player for sticking around forever and accumulating wins; Chris Osgood actually finishes with negative value.
  • I have no idea as to what part Luongo’s off-the-ice reputation will play in his candidacy. When I say this, I’m obviously referring to his albatross contract and his drama-filled years at the end of his stay in Vancouver, when he feuded with general manager Mike Gillis and was embroiled in a never-ending goalie controversy with Cory Schneider. I don’t know how fresh these issues will still be on the voters’ minds in the 2020s, but at least Luongo’s contract didn’t prove to be immovable like it was so often billed as.

Luongo may not be the hockey version of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, but I don’t think it would be ridiculous to call him the NHL’s Dan Marino. Or Fran Tarkenton, or Dan Fouts, or Warren Moon, or … you get the point.

I don’t think this is a guy you can keep out of the Hall, but we’ll see how history chooses to remember Roberto Luongo.

(Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

(Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

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About Brandon Magner (27 Articles)
(@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the one-year MBA program at the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He is now enrolled in the University of Kentucky College of Law.

2 Comments on Numbers vs. Narratives: Roberto Luongo and the Hockey Hall of Fame

  1. Wow! Amazing analysis! Brought me back to the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. I will check out your other sports articles for sure. Keep writing about hockey!

  2. That’s great that you came up with all these stats for Roberto. He is one hell of a goaltender, but to call him one of the best is a far stretch. As a Vancouver fan I found myself more frustrated at Luongo than happy with him. I knew whenever the pressure was on, he’d be the first to cave. Glad he’s happy once again in Florida, and I’m happy he’s no longer here. Good luck Roberto!

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