Roberto Luongo is aching.
It’s not one particular thing. His body, the one that has played more than 1,000 games and been bombarded with countless pucks over an 18-year NHL career, is sore from head to toe. Three days ago, he stopped 23 of 25 shots to become only the second goalie to win 200 games with two different teams. At the age of 38, Luongo is feeling like the Tin Man after being caught in a rainstorm.
His rusted joints need oil — or, at the very least, more rest.
“I think it’s a different ball game nowadays,” the Florida Panthers goalie said. “You feel it, right? You feel it a lot more. It’s not anything that hurts me. It’s the fatigue level and the lag. You don’t have a lot of jump. It just takes a toll on your body. You feel sluggish. It’s more of a recovery thing than feeling sore.
“The next morning you don’t feel too good. Your body isn’t too functional.”
During games, Luongo isn’t just functioning — he’s dominating. The NHL’s oldest goalie also happens to be one of the league’s best this season, ranking eighth with a .927 save percentage among goalies with at least 500 minutes. It just feels a bit wasted in Florida, where the Panthers have the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference.
For Luongo, this isn’t anything new. He didn’t make the playoffs until his seventh season in the league and has missed the playoffs in three of the last four years. Aside from a five-year stretch in Vancouver, when the Canucks routinely finished first in their division and reached Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2011, he’s spent the majority of his career as the lone bright spot on underachieving teams.
It might be part of the reason why Luongo, who has never won a Vezina Trophy, might no longer be considered as one of the league’s elite goalies — even if the numbers suggest otherwise.
Not that he’s complaining. After missing half the season because of hip problems last year — a recurring injury that had him contemplating his future — he’s just happy to be healthy and at the top of his game again.
“Right now, I still have a huge passion for the game and I still love playing it,” said Luongo, who has four more years remaining on the 12-year contract he signed with the Canucks prior to the 2010-11 season. “For me, one of two things need to happen when I decide to hang them up. Obviously, first and foremost as long as my health is there I want to keep playing. I’ve had some issues the last couple of years and it’s made me question whether I’ll be able to keep playing. I’m happy to be playing right now and be healthy and I’m not thinking about that stuff, which is great.
“The second thing is performance, and if I feel that my performance isn’t going to be where it needs to be then maybe it will be time to start thinking about something else. But for now I’m still playing at a high level and I feel healthy, so I don’t mind putting in the work that needs to be put in to play games. I’m still having fun playing the game, maybe more than ever.”
Though Luongo’s contract expires in 2022 — he will be 43 by then — his current $6.7 million salary gets cut in half next season and then drops to $1.6 million and $1 million for the final two years. Even though he will have been paid more than 94 per cent of the $64 million on his deal by the end of next season, he will still carry a cap hit of $5.333 million. It will be interesting to see if he’s still playing by then. But Luongo, who said he’s enjoying his time in Florida, sees potential in a young lineup that includes Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov and several other players 25 or younger.
“Being 38 now, you don’t know how much time you have left in the league and you want to enjoy it as much as you can and not miss any time for any reason,” he said. “When you are out, you want to get back and when you are back you want to enjoy the moment and not take anything for granted. That’s where I’m at. I don’t try to look too far ahead.”
It’s not just Luongo who has found the fountain of youth this year.
While the NHL is being overtaken with baby-faced youngsters who are not yet old enough to order a beer in the United States, the goaltending position is still an old man’s game. Wisdom counts. The top of the save percentage list is filled with goalies who are 30 or older, including Nashville’s Pekka Rinne (35) and Calgary’s Mike Smith (35), as well as Chicago’s Corey Crawford, who turns 33 in December.
Luongo probably isn’t going to play 60 games again — or hit the 70-game mark like he did four times in his career — but it’s about quality, not quantity at his age.
“I think you learn more about the position as you get older and you’re more efficient in how you play,” Luongo said. “When you’re young, you’re more dynamic and energetic and waste a lot of movement for nothing sometimes. As I got older, I realized that sometimes less is more as far as being a goaltender. I try to be in good position as much as I can because I’m a little less mobile. It all evens out.
“I’ll probably win a Vezina when I’m 45. By that time, I’ll be at the top of my game.”
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