The future for Florida Panthers icon Roberto Luongo is still a mystery, with the veteran keeper stating as recently as two weeks ago that he was undecided on what his next move would be and would wait until the off-season to make that call. However, The Athletic’s George Richards heard enough from talking to Luongo recently to believe that the future Hall of Famer is not quite ready to hang up his skates. The main piece of evidence: Luongo would be happy to serve in a backup role next season and possibly beyond, which is perhaps the only way his storied career can continue.
Luongo, 40, is undoubtedly in decline. Although his 42 appearances – 43 after Saturday’s season finale start – are an improvement over each of the past two seasons, his .900 save percentage and 3.10 GAA have made this the worst season of his 19-year career. Luongo entered the season as the Panthers starting goalie, backed up by another veteran in James Reimer, but that hierarchy has not exactly held up. Luongo and Reimer have almost identically poor stats, with Luongo making only six more appearances than Reimer. The two have essentially been a time share with rookie Samuel Montembeault also making eleven appearances and performing only marginally worse than the experienced tandem. Richards writes that the status quo will almost certainly change before next season. Luongo is obviously still undecided about his future, but regardless Reimer is not expected to be back and Montembeault is likely to remain a presence. The Panthers are going to add a new starting goalie in free agency, with many speculating that Columbus Blue Jackets star Sergei Bobrovksy could be the primary target.
So, if he was to return, Luongo would have to be content to sit behind another established netminder, which Richards notes includes increased practice time alongside decreased play time. While the limited action could in fact improve the performance of the aging keeper, it’s not exactly a role that many players of Luongo’s pedigree would be happy to take on. Yet, he seems open to the prospect:
I have done it before. I know what it takes. I realize I am 40 years old, and taking on a heavy workload at this age is tough. I am well aware if I come back, that is the likely scenario for me. And I am OK with that. I like to practice. The only time I don’t practice is if I am tired, but if I am not playing as many games, I would have more energy to practice and work on my game. When I have missed some time, I have had some of my best games when I have come back. So, that’s not an issue at all.
For fans of the storied goaltender, this has to be good news. For fans of the Panthers and Vancouver Canucks, it also bodes well for their respective teams’ payrolls. With three years remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $5.33MM but salaries of $1.6MM or less, Luongo’s contract was a front-loaded behemoth that would slap both his current club and former club with cap recapture penalties if he retired early. Avoiding leaving that sour taste in the mouths of his supporters is likely another factor that Luongo is considering and that could persuade him to return.
At the end of the day though, the decision will come down to an amalgam of many different choices and they won’t all be made by Luongo alone. As he tells Richards, the goal right now is to get through the end of the season, clear his head, and then consider all options:
I want to sit down and have a talk with (the Panthers) because, right now, everything else is hearsay. I want to make sure everyone is on the same page and we all want the same thing. We will see what the plans are for the team moving forward. For me, there are a lot of things involved in the decision, but sitting down with management and seeing their plan is the first step… It is important for me to make that decision once this season is over — after we are removed from everything. We have to see where everyone is at. This is not just up to me. I think the team has something to say about it as well. We will come to that when the time comes.
So for those expecting tomorrow to be the last hurrah of an NHL star, don’t be so sure. Luongo has struggled in net this season, has struggled with injuries in recent years, and could struggle with a decision to take a back seat if he was to continue playing. However, if he really is open to being the backup, it would allow Luongo to keep fueling the fire he has to play hockey, which appears to be as strong as ever, while also limiting his work load and injury exposure. It seems like a good fit and may just be one that keeps a living legend in the game.