Welcome to this week's edition of Holding Court, a column where both sides of a fantasy hockey debate are argued just like in a courtroom, complete with a final verdict. Then you, the DobberHockey readers, can comment on whether justice was properly served! You can also leave ideas in the comments section for other debates to be settled right here in future editions of the column.
Before the lockout became a sad reality, one of the biggest hockey stories of the summer (for both “real” hockey and fantasy hockey) was what would happen to Roberto Luongo. Over the course of a few months the big question went from would Luongo be traded, to where would he end up once he was traded, to whether he might somehow end up starting the season with Vancouver alongside Cory Schneider after all.
And even though the lockout is preventing hockey from being played at this moment (fingers crossed!), the Luongo/Schneider situation is very relevant to the many fantasy GMs who are still going through with their drafts, since they need to decide how to value these two players. With this dilemma in mind, the debate for this week’s edition of Holding Court is: who will have more wins this season - Cory Schneider or Roberto Luongo?
Luongo is the proven commodity and will have more wins
One of the effects of the Roberto Luongo trade saga is it mistakenly makes people think Luongo is not as great a fantasy goalie as he actually still very much is. Because the Canucks seem to be so eager to get rid of him, that makes it easier for fantasy hockey GMs to see him as damaged goods, instead of the proven elite goalie he was and remains. Yes, the Canucks are now focusing on Cory Schneider as their goalie of the future, but smart GMs know full well that wherever Luongo does land he will continue to be an undisputed #1 goalie who will rack up win after win as he has done throughout his career.
It’s interesting that the factors (money, contract length) which are apparently making it hard for the Canucks to move Luongo are also the same ones that ensure Luongo will continue in his familiar role of playing 60+ games per year (or even 70+, as he’s done four times in his career) and winning most of those games. No team would go through the trouble of trading for Luongo to only use him sparingly – it just wouldn’t make sense and would be looked upon badly by its fans who just had to endure the lockout (however long it lasts). Compare that to Schneider, who, as great as he’s played in his brief NHL career, has only logged more than 50 games in a season once dating back to his college years and has never played more than 33 NHL games in a single regular season. Schneider is like a young MLB pitching prospect – Vancouver won’t risk his future by having him play too much in his first full time season as a starter, especially with the more than ready Eddie Lack slotted to be Schneider’s back-up.
The reality of all this is if Luongo gets traded before the start of the season, he’s bound to play at least 10-20% more games than Schneider, and that plus his continued skills will translate into a greater number of wins. What’s more, that percentage could even end up being even higher if, as is expected, the season includes an added number of back-to-back games, which is an environment that the Canucks might shy away from exposing Schneider to but which Luongo has handled time and time again over his illustrious career.
And although almost no one thinks that Luongo will finish next season still as a member of the Canucks, at this point there’s a pretty decent chance he’ll begin the year with Vancouver. And if that happens, it’s not like he won’t play. In fact, to entice teams to actually make a deal for Luongo, the Canucks will need to give him every chance to show that he’s worth the steep price the Canucks are asking teams to give up. In other words, Luongo will need to be showcased. And every game where that happens, it’s one less start – and, with that, one less chance for a win - for Schneider. Once Luongo finally is moved, he’ll already have more wins than Schneider and – as discussed above - that lead should only grow through the rest of the season due to Luongo getting more starts and racking up wins like he always does.
Beyond this, we can’t forget the reality that all of Schneider’s achievements in his young career have come without the pressure of being a starter. How many people reading this were among those who once wasted an early draft pick or made an ill-advised trade to get the likes of Christobal Huet, Martin Gerber, or Vesa Toskala the year they became (or at least were supposed to become) an undisputed starter after being a successful young back-up? Like Schneider, Huet and Gerber each had a season with a GAA under 2.00 before becoming a full time starter, and Toskala also had a season with a SV% of 93% before he was anointed a starter. The key is it’s important to remember that seeing a former back-up’s great stats – even those of one who’s done as well as Schneider so far - translate into good numbers as a starter is far from a foregone conclusion.
But in terms of Luongo, there is no such concern for failure. Once he’s traded not only will he be out to prove all those who doubted him wrong, but he actually has a track record of coming through in a new environment amid intense pressure and with the spotlight shining directly on him. We need only remember back to when Luongo arrived in Vancouver from Florida in 2006, when many wondered whether he really could lead a contending team within the hockey hotbed of Canada into the playoffs. He only ended up responding with a 47 win season, which is tied for the 2nd best of all-time! Expect him to respond well to the pressure again once he’s dealt this time around. In truth, the Canucks need to be prepared to be looked upon like the 1995-96 Canadiens, who thought they were getting an upgrade by trading their proven veteran Patrick Roy to make room for a young, highly touted netminder in Jocelyn Thibeault.
If you don’t remember how that turned out, here’s a reminder – in the 1996-97 season Roy saw 38 wins in 62 games, which is right where Luongo figures to be in 2012, while Thibeault managed only a measly 22 wins in 61 games. Look for history to repeat itself, this time with Schneider playing the Thibeault role in Vancouver and Luongo doing a perfect Patrick Roy imitation wherever he lands.
Schneider will have more wins – he’s the better goalie and will play for the better team
The arguments you just read in favor of Luongo seem to boil down to two things – Luongo will get more wins because he’ll get more starts, and Luongo will react better to his new situation than Schneider. What’s interesting is that even if somehow one or both of those things end up true, it still doesn’t lead one to reasonably conclude that Luongo will get more wins! The reality is that Schneider is unquestionably the better goalie at this point, and his situation in Vancouver will certainly lend itself to a far higher number of wins than Luongo will get wherever he ends up.
We all know that numbers don’t lie, so let’s first focus on the stats of both goalies. If you look at Schneider’s SV% for the past two seasons (92.9% and 93.7%), both are better than what Luongo had for any of his years in Vancouver; and only once in his career (2003-04 with the Panthers) did Luongo even record a 93.1 SV%. In terms of GAA, Schneider’s was 2.23 and 1.96 for the past two seasons, both of which were once again better than Luongo did in every season except one (2009-10 with the Canucks, where his GAA was 2.11). But never in any season of his 12 year NHL career has Luongo recorded either a SV% or GAA that was better than what Schneider put up (93.7%, 1.97) last year! And in terms of winning percentage, Schneider’s past two regular seasons in Vancouver have seen him win 36 games and lose only 12 in regulation (with 3 overtime losses), which means he won 36 of 51 decisions, translating to a winning percentage of 70.5%.
Compare that to Luongo, who in the past two seasons won 69 games but lost 29 in regulation and had 15 overtime losses, so he won 69 of 113 decisions, translating to a 61% winning percentage. What does this mean exactly? Let’s say that Luongo starts 62 games next season, which is equal to the average of his games played in the past five seasons. Even though we know that not every game played by a goalie results in a win, loss, or overtime loss, let’s also say that somehow he wins or loses all of those games at the same rate he did in the past two seasons. That would translate to Luongo winning 37 of 62 games. Based on his established winning percentage, Schneider would only need to start 52 games to win the same 37 games.
And of course this doesn’t take into account the fact that Luongo’s most likely destinations (Florida, Toronto, Chicago) are teams not nearly as good on paper as the Canucks, which would make it harder for Luongo to continue to win games at the percentage he did while in Vancouver, as evidenced by Luongo’s previous time in Florida where he never once won 50% of his games played. So in truth, 62 starts for Luongo would likely translate to fewer (perhaps far fewer) wins than 37, making it easier for Schneider – who will still have the luxury of playing with the outstanding Vancouver team in front of him – to surpass Luongo’s win total even if Luongo gets quite a few more starts. This also doesn’t even factor in Luongo’s now notorious slow starts……
In terms of backups folding under the pressure of becoming a starter, it’s true that some goalies end up failing once they graduate from being a sheltered back-up to becoming the unquestioned starter; but closer analysis reveals that Schneider is distinguishable from the cautionary tales that are Huet, Gerber and Toskala. So what’s the key difference? Beyond none of those three having a single season – like Schneider’s last year – that consisted of 30+ games played and both a GAA less than 2.00 and a SV% greater than .927, they also never started an NHL playoff game before the first season in which they played 40 NHL games, whereas Schneider already has two seasons worth of NHL playoff experience and thus has endured pressure far greater than what he’ll get as a regular season starter.
His stats and playoff experience prior to being a full time starter actually make him very comparable to Miikka Kiprusoff, who tasted the pressure of the Stanley Cup playoffs while with the Sharks and Flames before he ever played in 40 NHL regular season games. In fact, Schneider’s 2011-12 season is remarkably similar to that of Kiprusoff’s in 2003-04 when, as a 27 year old (Schneider is 26), Kiprusoff put up a 1.69 GAA and a 93.3 SV% in 38 games for Calgary. So how did Kiprusoff respond in his next season? Only by playing in 74 games, winning 42 and putting up a GAA of 2.07 and a SV% of 92.3. I think that knowing what we do now, everyone would agree that we’d take 2004’s Kiprusoff over 2012's Roberto Luongo. Well the good news is you can have that – in the form of 2012 Cory Schneider, and all the wins he’ll give you.
Lastly, even beyond Schneider’s superior stats and him looking like this decade’s Miikka Kiprusoff, we also cannot ignore that mentally, Luongo isn’t the same goalie he once was. His failures in the past two Stanley Cup playoffs cannot be ignored, and surely they’ll continue to haunt him. Luongo had a chance to respond to the gut wrenching 2010-11 Finals loss last year in front of a Canucks team that was just a strong on paper, yet he once again started the season terribly and laid an egg in the playoffs. Any attempt to compare him to Patrick Roy fails for several reasons, but most notably because of Roy’s demonstrated playoff success, what with having hoisted the Stanley Cup twice before he came to Colorado and twice more with the Avs. Luongo might be motivated to succeed with whatever new team trades for him, but motivation can only go so far, and at his age and with his poor track record in the past few seasons, he’s more likely to fold under pressure than rise to it and that will make it easy for Schneider to put up far more wins than Luongo.
The Final Verdict
Both sides have some strong arguments, and some weaker ones. If Luongo was a bit younger and hadn’t been plagued by both bad starts and poor playoff showings in two straight years (one could be seen as a fluke, but two…….), it would be harder to give weight to a number of the points raised against him. In contrast, the only arguments against Schneider seem to boil down to his age and whether he’ll play enough. But Schneider’s numbers over the past two seasons – even as a back-up - suggest that he shouldn’t have to play as much as a starter to get more wins than Luongo, and the similarities between him and Kiprusoff are quite eye-opening. In the end, the edge in predicted wins for next season does have to go to Schneider. But readers should not take that as a reason to avoid Luongo; in fact, Luongo could be a very nice bargain as some fantasy GMs might very well devalue him too much because of his uncertain status.
Look no further than the DobberHockey Experts League Draft, where Schneider went 20th and Luongo slipped to 37th, well behind guys like Kari Lehtonen, Miika Kiprusoff and even following Antti Niemi as well as both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. If things fall into place, Luongo might end up outperforming many of those being drafted ahead of him.
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