Quite often there seems to be this mistaken dichotomy between Roberto Luongo and the Canucks blue line. In Luongo’s first season with the Canucks, we saw him make glove save after glove save, lead the team to the Northwest Division crown, and single-handedly beat the Dallas Stars in the first round of the playoffs. The thinking then became that, if the Canucks’ goaltender was nearly unbeatable, the defense could cheat a bit and join the rush more often. But since Luongo first arrived to make us forget about Dan Cloutier and beach balls, one thing is clear – Luongo needs his blue line as much as they need him.
In the last few years, the Canucks’ defense has been riddled with injuries, and as such, a lot of onus has been placed on Luongo. Take for instance last season’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. With Willie Mitchell out with a concussion, Alex Edler injuring his leg and Sami Salo playing with one nut, Shane O’Brien and Andrew Alberts logged extensive minutes. The captaincy didn’t make matters easier, but when you’re relying on Alberts to play in a top-four role, you’re asking for trouble and also asking Luongo to win you games. (Thanks again for being a baby, Mathieu Schneider.)
Now that Luongo has given up the captaincy and the blue line was rebuilt to what is arguably the league’s best, it looks like the Canucks have the perfect compromise between their goaltender and their blue line. Certainly, it’s the best the Canucks have had since Luongo joined the team. The Canucks have 8 NHL-caliber defensemen under contract, and with the likes of Hamhuis and Ballard dropping Alberts and Rome in the depth chart, the blue line is as solid – and deep – as it’s ever been. This speaks to the false dichotomy I mentioned earlier. Behind this sort of defense, Luongo feels more comfortable. The hope is he regains his form, his performance goes up, and the blue line can get away with the odd offensive gamble. The hope is that this translates into much better numbers and much better results for Luongo and the Canucks.
Luongo won a gold medal at the Olympics because he was confident and good night in and night out. He had an excellent surrounding cast, and most notably, an outstanding defense. That defense gave him the piece of mind to play his game. He made the big saves when he had to do so and a lot of that due to the ability of the blue line to relieve him of the pressure.
Apply that to this year’s Canucks team. Behind Hamhuis, Ballard, Edler, Ehrhoff, Salo (when he gets healthy) and O’Brien (and having Alberts and Rome as a nos. 7 and 8 isn’t bad), I think you’ll see a more comfortable and more confident Luongo. And better play from Luongo will allow the defensemen to play better and perhaps give them more opportunities to join in on the rush. I expect Luongo will have an outstanding year and with a solid, healthy defense in front of him, maybe this is the year the Canucks finally get over that second round hump.