NHL99: Roberto Luongo, the last workhorse goaltender in the NHL

NHL99: Roberto Luongo, the last workhorse goaltender in the NHL

NHL99: Roberto Luongo, the last workhorse goaltender in the NHL

Welcome to NHL99The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.

When the last workhorse goalie decided to retire, he did so at the Florida Panthers’ training facility in a small conference room adjacent to the practice sheet.

Roberto Luongo sighed heavily, made a joke about the comic sans font on the official NHL document, and affixed his signature to a piece of paper.

Suddenly, the last workhorse was done playing, his kind never to be seen in the NHL again.

With apologies to Henrik Lundqvist — who profiles similarly but with somewhat higher peaks of performance over a shorter relative period of time — Luongo was the most durable, consistent and elite goaltender of his era. The definition of a workhorse.

It wasn’t just that Luongo was great, it’s that he was great every day, every season, year after year, hardly ever missing a start due to injury. Along with Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy, Luongo is one of three goaltenders in NHL history to appear in 1,000 career games. It’s a group that may never welcome any new members — unless Marc-André Fleury joins the club at some point next season — given the way goaltender usage is trending in the contemporary NHL.

No one else this century has combined Luongo’s unique mix of longevity, consistency and elite performance, which is why he checks in at No. 63 on The Athletic’s ranking of the greatest players in the modern era of the NHL.

To truly understand just how outrageous and unrepeatable Luongo’s accomplishments are, you need to dive a bit into the history of the goaltending position.

From expansion through to the NHL lockout in 2012, goaltenders would somewhat regularly start 70 games (or more) in a single season. It was still an amazing accomplishment and a rare feat, but it happened 80 times over 45 years. At least once a season on average, and often twice, a goaltender would appear in 85 percent of their team’s games (or more) in a single campaign.

“It was a different mindset then, when I was coming into the league,” recalls Cory Schneider, an NHL workhorse in his own right during his prime, and a player forever tied to Luongo by their friendship and controversy they found themselves at the center of in Vancouver a decade ago. “The guys that played 65-70 games a year — Brodeur, Miikka Kiprusoff, Roberto — they took pride in that. It was a badge of honor to be ‘the guy.’”

In the decade since, however, that sort of ‘the guy’-level goalie usage has all but disappeared from the league. All NHL goaltenders combined have only eclipsed the 70 games played mark in a single season on four occasions over the past decade, and no goaltender has played more than 70 games in a season since 2017. The workhorse has become extinct.

“I don’t even know if it’s possible to do that anymore,” says Luongo, whose job working with goaltenders for the Panthers means goaltender usage is a top-line consideration for him day to day. “I mean, it’s possible, but I’d think of it as something that could jeopardize the health of the goalie.”

It’s at this point in the interview that I read Luongo the games played stats from his prime seasons, to gauge his reaction.

“Your peak workload years from 2003-04 to 2007-08, you go like this for games played over four straight seasons: 72, 75, 76, 73,” I say, reading off of his Hockey Reference page.

“Jesus,” Luongo replies with a laugh.

“That’s madness, right?” I ask.

“Yeah, that’s a little crazy,” Luongo admits.

(Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Although Luongo believes that his current star pupil, Spencer Knight, could potentially handle a 70-game workload (or close to it) down the line because of his raw athletic tools and the uncanny, mature way he takes care of his body, he knows the effect of this sort of high-intensity athletic repetition from experience. Late in his career, Luongo would undergo an arduous dynamic workout routine, targeted to strengthen his surgically repaired hip. The process took him 90 minutes or more every day (and sometimes twice), and was required just to step onto the ice, which Luongo did without fail every morning before a start.

“Morning skates these days have kind of become obsolete because obviously rest is very important,” Schneider said. “But back then, every day he played, Roberto morning skated.

“When I became a starter in New Jersey, they even had to tell me that I didn’t have to skate every day. Like, ‘You’re going to play 70 games this year, you can dial it back,’ but it was just ingrained in me from my time with Roberto.”

Luongo’s skating regiment was so demanding that, late in his career, when the team would stay in Manhattan for games against the Devils, Luongo would often stay in Newark with the equipment staff in order to be closer to the rink for his morning sessions.

“Even his last season in Florida, we played them late in the year, and I was able to catch up with him at a morning skate,” Schneider said. “I come out on the bench and he’s there at age 40, alone, with just a couple of coaches and extras shooting on him. From Day 1 until Day 10,000 in the league, he was the same, and had the same mentality of how hard he had to work to prove himself every day.”

The level of durability and constant availability that Luongo mixed with elite performance is even more incredible in retrospect. From the ages of 22 to 36, Luongo appeared in 835 games across 14 seasons — averaging over 64 starts per season. He missed significant time in only one of those seasons due to injury — a groin injury in 2008, his third season in Vancouver.

That groin injury actually caused Luongo to modify his preparation and his routine. It set him up to extend his career by an additional 120 games, even following the surgical procedure he underwent on his hip in his mid-30s.

“The routine came about mostly after I hurt my groin,” Luongo said. “That’s when I really started establishing more of a routine, in terms of a dynamic warmup and strengthening exercises and all that kind of stuff. Before that to be honest with you, I’d just stretch and go on the ice. That’s how I did it growing up and was never really taught otherwise.

“Once I got hurt, that’s when I started working with the medical staff and the training staff to come up with a routine that was more dynamic and involved in strengthening. Most of my work before that was put in, in the summertime. That’s when I really did the work to be strong and fast and build my endurance. Later on in my career, I learned how to manage my body during the season as well.”

And every year, like clockwork, Luongo would produce elite results. During that 14-year stretch of consistent, day-after-day puck-stopping dominance in the NHL, Luongo’s save percentage never dipped below league average and was usually clear of it by at least 0.01 percent.

“There are two types of goalies,” Luongo said of his constant usage during his playing career. “The starter is the marathon runner and the backup is the sprinter.

“The sprinter has to get ready once every week or two, and they have a game and they have to go all out then they’re done, they get to rest. The starting goalie, he has to be at a consistent level every single night. You’re going to have ups and downs, but over the long run, you just have to be consistent. There’s a lot of goalies that are great backups, but they can’t handle being a starter.

“Of course you want to be great every night, but as a starter, you learn to understand that whether you had a great game or a bad game, you just have to be ready for the next night. You can’t let that affect you one way or the other.”

NHL99: Roberto Luongo, the last workhorse goaltender in the NHL

(Eliot J. Schechter / NHLI via Getty Images)

Luongo achieved a remarkable level of durability and on-ice play in part because he was a rink rat, and in part because of his nature. He is outrageously competitive, standing out even among a group of high-level athletes. That competitiveness extends beyond the ice too — to the realms of cards and fantasy football.

“Lu never accepted being average,” says Luongo’s friend and longtime teammate Alex Burrows. “He was shooting for the moon. Everything he did, he thought he could win and he’d find a way to win. Card games, fantasy football, it could’ve been poker stars or cards on the plane. He was so competitive.

“I’m still in a fantasy league with him to this day,” Schneider said. “And as busy as he is with the Panthers and his family, he’s still grinding the waiver wire, getting the guy first that everybody wants. And I’m sure that’s just one of the 10 leagues he’s got going.”

More than that, what’s so impressive about Luongo’s longevity is the work it took to stay ahead of the curve — to redefine and adapt his game, to stay ahead of shooters as the game changed in front of him.

When Luongo entered the league, there were still stand-up netminders. By the time he retired, seemingly every NHL goaltender was as tall as an NBA shooting guard. These were players who had mastered as teenagers a variety of puck tracking and post-integration techniques that didn’t even exist in Luongo’s 20s.

“Look, Lu was from that old-school era — the old-school hybrid types,” Schneider said. “Where the butterfly was coming, but not as proficient. Then he was great in the blocking era of the 2000s where guys were very good at butterflying and blocking. And then into the era we’re in now, where the game has opened up.

“Those are three very distinct phases of the league, and he was able to make those changes on the fly, adjust and excel in all of them.”

In the first round of the 2013 playoffs, for example, the San Jose Sharks exploited Luongo by attacking him from below the goal line. That summer, he committed himself to learning the post-integration techniques that several star European goaltenders — most notably Sergei Bobrovsky — had adopted with great success. He committed himself to learning and mastering the reverse VH, setting himself up — even at 34 — for four more seasons putting up a .920 save percentage in a league that was becoming increasingly fast-paced and freewheeling.

“That’s what kept me in the league so long, is that I was open-minded to learning new things to get better,” Luongo said. “I wasn’t stuck in my ways and a lot of guys are like that, and those are the guys that have shorter careers.

“To stick around, you have to evolve with the game. The game is always changing. There’s always new things coming in, new more efficient techniques to learn, and I was always willing to learn and be open to those new ideas. I would take them if they suited my game and if I thought I could work with it, integrate it and use it in my game, then I’d use it. Sometimes it didn’t work, but I was open to it and I always wanted to get better and learn and bring new things into my game. That’s what kept me in the league so long.”

Luongo’s ability to adapt and evolve was about more than an old workhorse learning new tricks. It also applied to his gear.

“I remember he wore these CCM skates forever,” Schneider said. “He never wanted to get out of them, and the trainers had to keep sewing them up to make sure they were stiff enough to play in.

“Then I saw him in Florida and he’s wearing these new player-type skates that a lot of goalies are wearing now. I never thought in a million years that I’d ever see him in those — he just loved those CCMs so much — but it speaks to how he was able to diversify and evolve and keep doing what he had to do to get an edge.”

This is what makes Luongo’s consistent excellence so exceptional. He was physically gifted — an athletic 6-foot-3, with long limbs and size-14 skates — as all NHL athletes are, but he married those gifts with a unique competitive drive, work ethic and mind for the game.

It took work, humility and intelligence to adapt his game over the course of two decades. It took a thoughtful approach to maintain his body into his late 30s. It wasn’t a fluke that Luongo was durable, and it was never a fluke when he managed to sustain an elite save percentage over 64 games, or more, in any given season. As if to prove it, Luongo would go out and do it again the next year.

“I’ve never won a Cup and I’ve never won a Vezina, so the thing I’m most proud of — other than the Olympic gold medals — is the consistency to do it year after year,” Luongo said. “It’s tough to go through that many years and always be playing at a high level, and I’m most proud I was able to. To have done it year after year for so many years. It took a lot of work, a lot of dedication, a lot of putting your ego aside sometimes and being willing to understand that there may still be some people better than you — so you better work to get better.”

(Top photo: Ben Nelms / Getty Images)

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