Q&A with Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo
It has been 10 years since the Florida Panthers made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals. This season, the Panthers just getting to the playoffs could be a huge step toward holding on to their marquee goaltender.
In this edition of Facing Off, soon-to-be free agent Roberto Luongo tells us what could keep him in the Sunshine State, why he got special attention at the Olympic Games and who gets his vote for the NHL's rookie of the year.
Question from David Amber: The Panthers are right in the middle of the playoff hunt. Why is the team playing so well compared to the beginning of the year?
Answer from Roberto Luongo: I think we had a tough learning process early on, especially during that brutal 11-game losing streak we had. We learned a lot from that, and we grew as a team. Since the Olympic break, the guys have jelled and we are playing well. We're getting leadership from Olli [Jokinen], he's our captain, and a lot of the veteran guys like Joe Nieuwendyk, Chris Gratton and Sean Hill are really giving a boost to the team.
Q: How important is it to you to make the playoffs? You are known as a great player, but you have never been to the postseason.
A: It's huge. I haven't had any action yet in the playoffs; that's what you work for. Just being in the hunt this time of year is very exciting, and we need to keep doing the things we've been doing lately to give us a shot at the playoffs.
Q: Looking back at how you ended up in Florida, how did you hear about that draft-day deal that sent you from the Islanders to the Panthers?
A: I was in Montreal, and I remember my mom waking me up and telling me that my teammate Kevin Weekes had been traded to Tampa. So, I said to myself, "This is good for me; it will give me a chance to be the No. 1 guy in Long Island." About an hour later, Butch Goring [the Islanders' coach at the time] called me and said I had been traded to Florida.
Q: What was your reaction?
A: I was shocked. I never expected to be traded. They had never talked about it, so it caught me off guard. But once it sunk in, I was excited to come to Florida.
• Selected fourth overall by the Islanders in the 1997 NHL entry draft (at the time, Luongo was the highest drafted goalie in NHL history).
• Played 24 games in his rookie season (1999-2000) with a .904 save percentage and one shutout.
• Traded along with Olli Jokinen by the Islanders to the Panthers at the 2000 NHL entry draft for Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish.
• Led Canada to gold in 2003 and 2004 at World Championships.
• Finished second to Martin Brodeur in 2004 Vezina Trophy voting.
A: [Laughs] I think that's a question you have to ask [Islanders GM] Mike Milbury. I think the deal worked out really well for Florida. Nothing against Parrish and Kvasha, but they both got traded this year, so things didn't go so well for the Islanders.
Q: Looking at your style and size, you automatically get compared to Patrick Roy. What do you make of the comparison?
A: I try to play like Patrick Roy as much as I can because his technique was flawless, but at the same time, I try to do some other things. Sometimes, my saves are more athletic than technical, so there are a few goalies I look to gain moves from.
Q: At 6-foot-3 and more than 200 pounds, you have the size to play out. Is there ever a time when you wish you were a different position so you could get involved in the rough stuff?
A: Not really. I love my position, and I think it's the most exciting position in the game. I'm really comfortable in my little crease area, so I'll leave the rough stuff to the other guys.
Q: You won your first NHL game making 43 saves along the way [2-1 win over Boston]. What do you remember most about that game?
A: I had butterflies in my stomach before the game. It was in Boston; there were all sorts of excitement, but it all happened so fast, too fast. I wasn't sick, but I was definitely nervous; it was the biggest day of my life. Some of the veteran guys were telling me to enjoy the moment and relax, but it was the day I had been dreaming of since I was a kid, so it was tough to get the butterflies out of my stomach.
Q: In 2002, playing against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, you made 57 saves. Scotty Bowman called that the greatest goaltending performance he's ever seen. How do you explain that night for you?
A: I don't know. It was one of those nights where I felt comfortable and the puck just finds you. It was one of those inexplicable things, but it would be nice to have more nights like that because those are the times when you feel the greatest.
Q: At the trade deadline, Jokinen signed a contract extension to stay in Florida. For you, as a free agent this summer, how could that move impact your future with the Panthers?
A: Well, I think it's a big step for the organization. To lock a player of his caliber in for four years is a big commitment, so if the team has success, it will be a big part of my decision. I will consider [it] this summer, but obviously, I would like to stay with the Florida Panthers for a long time.
Q: The Panthers did make you a five-year, $30 million contract offer. Why did you decline that offer?
A: I play to be in the playoffs; that's my main goal. Until I have that security, I don't want to commit myself to a team for five years without knowing for sure that we will have a successful team for the next five years.
Q: As a kid who grew up in Quebec, is there a part of you that would love to play for the Canadiens?
A: No, not really. My dream was to play in the NHL, and obviously Montreal is where I'm from, but it's not a priority for me to play for the Montreal Canadiens any day.
Q: Your parents are Italian. Did the Italian national team try to recruit you for the Olympics?
A: [Laughs] No, no. They couldn't because I had already played for Canada and there are certain rules that make it impossible to play for a second country.
Q: But think about it ... you could have been the biggest hockey star in the history of Italy.
A: [Laughs] I don't know. I was born in Canada and I have played for Canada so many times that it never really crossed my mind to think about playing for Italy. Of course, playing for the host country at the Olympics would be special, but I'm a Canadian and I love playing with that maple leaf on my jersey.
Q: Did you receive any special attention at the Olympics from the media or fans because of your Italian heritage?
A: A little bit. I speak fluent Italian when I'm at home with my parents, so I did a couple of interviews in Italian, and some people ... knew of my Italian background and came and talked to me. Around the athletes' village, I got some attention because I was able to answer the people working there, like the security guards, so that impressed them.
Q: What happened at the Olympics with the expectation by many that Canada should have won the gold medal?
A: It's tough to say. I don't really have an explanation. The only thing I can think of is in a tournament like that, we leave on the Monday and start playing on the Wednesday, so there's not a lot of time for preparation. I know all the other teams had the same problem, but we never jelled as a group. I remember at the World Cup, we had a two-week training camp that really helped us get ready. At the Olympics, things happened so fast, before we knew it, we were on the ice. Maybe that hurt us more than the other teams.
Q: Right before the Olympics started, there were all sorts of controversy surrounding Wayne Gretzky and his possible involvement in an alleged gambling scandal. Did he talk to the team about the situation?
A: No, we didn't really talk about it, to be honest with you. I think it was a bigger issue for the media and maybe some fans, but it didn't really come up with the team itself.
Q: You set an NHL record for saves in a season in 2003-04 with 2,303. What did your body look like after that season?
A: [Laughs] It was a tough year. Especially the last month, I was pretty fatigued, not just physically but mentally, and when you face all those shots, you're bound to have a breakdown here and there. Generally, I don't get too banged-up taking shots, but the ones that hurt the most are the ones that hit near your collarbone; those sting the most.
Q: Who has the hardest shot?
A: [Ilya] Kovalchuk can really fire it. He has a really nasty one-timer. That might be the hardest.
Q: This season, we are seeing perhaps the best crop of NHL rookies in a generation. Who gets your vote for rookie of the year?
A: You have to go with [Alexander] Ovechkin. So far, he has been the most exciting player that I have seen this year. Not to take anything away from [Sidney] Crosby, but Ovechkin has been unreal and I see a lot of Ovechkin since we play the Caps eight times a year.
Q: Which team looks most poised to make a serious Stanley Cup run this year?
A: [Long pause] I don't know. Maybe the Anaheim Mighty Ducks might surprise some people.
Q: Seriously? You're messing with me, right?
A: No, I'm serious. I think the Ducks might pull a few surprises this year. Remember, goaltending can be huge in the playoffs.
David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.