Conventional wisdom has been a pretty lousy indicator of what will happen in the Vancouver Canucks' net over the last few years. For a long time, seemingly everyone knew that the team was going to trade hotshot prospect Cory Schneiderand yet general manager Mike Gillis stubbornly held on to the 2004 first round pick. When Schneider replaced Luongo between the pipes in Vancouver's first-round series against Los Angeles last spring, expectations shifted: now Schneider was the team's designated starter, and it was Luongo who would be dealt.
Trade rumors made the rounds all summer and into the fall, quieting a little during the NHL lockout and then taking off again once it became clear the NHL would have a 2013 season. From legitimate reporters to anonymous rumor mongers, Roberto Luongo was the most talked about player in hockey.
A trade didn't happen, though it was undoubtedly investigated. So the Canucks made the best of the situation and have rotated both goaltenders.
Unfortunately for conventional wisdom, Schneider stumbled badly out of the gate, allowing five goals on 14 shots to Anaheim. He followed that up with two solid starts before allowing four goals on 27 shots against San Jose. Entering action on Thursday, Luongo had been better, with three strong starts and a .938 save percentage compared to Schneider's .897.
The real problem isn't so much the game-to-game difference between Luongo and Schneider. The problem is that it's very much an open question as to which player is better. In the short term, either one could be dominantand in a shortened NHL season, the guy who isn't supposed to be a part of the team over the long haul could emerge as the superior starter. There isn't a lot of daylight between the two since Schneider played his first game for the Canucks; Luongo is more proven and has a slightly better even strength save percentage, while Schneider is younger and has the better overall save percentage. For comparison, I've also included the combined results of three other goaliesAndrew Raycroft, Jason LaBarbera, and Curtis Sanfordthe Canucks have used since Schneider's debut.
Canucks' goaltender performance since 2008-09
Roberto Luongo has played slightly better over the last four-plus seasons in Vancouver than he has over his career as a whole, but not muchover the entirety of his NHL tenure, Luongo's even strength save percentage is .929, and that's including his rookie season with the Islanders (which was far and away his worst NHL campaign). The Canucks can be very sure that he's in the .930 save percentage range, with Luongo having proved it over 16,000+ shots at the NHL level. He is an elite goaltender, and will remain that way until such time as age erodes his skill.
Even strength save percentage probably tells the story here more so than regular save percentageSchneider has had two exceptional seasons stopping shots on the penalty kill (last season he managed an unheard of .959 in those situations), and history shows that this is not a skill goalies can replicate season to season. As one example, Ryan Miller's Vezina-winning season was aided by a marvelous .919 save percentage while shorthanded, and his fall back to simply very good was almost entirely a result of that not continuing. As another example, Luongo's best NHL season (2003-04) was also fueled by a crazy-good penalty kill save percentage.916, a number he has never come close to repeating.
However, even leaning on even strength save percentage, the gap between Schneider and Luongo is small. For example, if we eliminate Schneider's eight-game rookie season from the equation, his save percentage at even strength jumps to .931identical to Luongo's.
Both goalies have been superb. The real choice is a choice between a sure thingLuongowho costs more and is closer to the point in his career where skills start slipping, and the uncertainty of an excellent-looking Schneider who simply hasn't played enough NHL games to firmly establish his true talent level. Also worth factoring in are questions of return in a trade: given how close the performances of the two have been, does it make sense to move the one that brings the greatest return to the organization?
One thing is certain: as long as Vancouver hangs on to both goalies, it isn't going to be clear which one is going to be their starter.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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