Luey's grace period wearing thin in Vancouver

Updated: December 13, 2006, 1:01 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

On this night, he'd lasted all of 29 official minutes. He was given the old vaudeville hook after surrendering four goals on 24 Calgary Flames' shots.

"It wasn't Luey's fault," Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault protested afterward. "I just thought I'd give him a breather. He's played so much."

In a funereal dressing room, Roberto Luongo, looking as if he'd just stepped out of a GQ fashion shoot, politely, patiently stood in for another edition of Meet the Press, squinting into the television lights.

Roberto Luongo
Jeff Vinnick/Getty ImagesRoberto Luongo has a 14-13 record and a 2.54 goals-against average (15th in the NHL) through Monday's action.

"I think I've been playing pretty well the past few weeks," he critiqued himself. "Tonight aside. There's been a lot of change for me this year. I've had to get used to a new environment, new team.

"It's been good. It's been positive."

Of all the trades made in the offseason, perhaps none prompted such enthusiasm as Luongo's relocation to Vancouver.

When Canucks general manager Dave Nonis swung the massive deal with the Florida Panthers, the organization believed it had found the answer to its prayers, and to the ongoing goaltending crisis that stretched back for seasons. Luongo might have cost the Canucks the ol' Cannoli Truck -- Todd Bertuzzi, defenseman Bryan Allen and backup goalie Alex Auld -- but nowhere on Canada's West Coast could anyone be heard complaining.

Big Bert had to go. For all the glee-club support he'd received from the British Columbia citizenry in light of the Steve Moore insanity, there was still too much baggage, too much attention. Allen? Too bad, but something had to be sacrificed. Lukas Krajicek (a part of the trade with Florida) has been a pleasant surprise as a replacement. And, to be blunt, the paying patrons at GM Place were never going to buy Auld Lang Syne as the go-to guy.

In exchange, they pilfered, almost by consensus, The Next Great Canadian goaltender. Heir apparent to Martin Brodeur.

In Florida, Luongo had been riddled by more bullets than Bonnie and Clyde's final getaway car. Now, shifted to a more stable situation in a hockey-mad market for the first time in his NHL career, the moment seemed to arrive for Luongo.

So, how have the prodigy's reviews been after the opening two months? Good. Not great.

One avid Canucks-watcher's report card for Luongo reads like this: a 9 out of 10 in October, a 5 in November and a 7 so far in December. Good marks, yes, but hardly otherworldly.

Luongo certainly has been a massive upgrade over injury-plagued, cyanide-capsule-hidden-somewhere-in-the-mask Dan Cloutier (did you check out those numbers in L.A.? Ug-ly!). He has played more minutes and made more saves than any other goalie. And, tellingly, he has received less offensive support than any other No. 1 netminder on the circuit.

"On the island and in Florida, he could walk around virtually unnoticed. Now, he can't go to a mall or a movie or a restaurant without people asking for an autograph or asking a question about the team ... There are far more demands on his time away from the rink now. "
-- Canucks assistant coach Rick Bowness on Luongo

It unquestionably has been a beneficial trade for the Canucks. This is an organization retooling after a change in coach and the loss of several touchstone veterans in the offseason. But the defining deal everyone had envisioned? That has yet to be determined.

"He's been solid," Vancouver assistant coach Rick Bowness replied to the question everyone invariably asks in every city the Canucks visit. "We're a .500 hockey club because of our goals-for, not our goals-against. Luey's stolen a few games for us this year; the one in Colorado pops immediately to mind."

But there've been more wince-inducing goals than anyone in Vancouver had expected, too. And the Canucks are going to be hard-pressed to keep up if they continue to burp along at their present speed in crucial matchups within their Northwest Division (2-8-1), where playoff spots will be won and lost.

Luongo became Vancouver's highest-paid player upon signing a four-year, $27 million deal. Still, if you ranked the Northwest goalies right now, Luongo would be no higher than third out of five on the pecking order, clearly trailing reigning Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff of the Flames and Edmonton's springtime hero, Dwayne Roloson.

"I always look at myself, at what I'm doing," Luongo countered. "I don't judge myself that way."

He might not. Others, be certain, will.

Statistically, Luongo trails both Kiprusoff (2.04, .929) and Rolli the Goalie (2.38, .921) in goals-against-average and save percentage. The inability of Vancouver goaltenders to win the crucial one-on-one net battles is perhaps the major downfall of the Marc Crawford-Bertuzzi-Ed Jovanovski era, an era punctuated by disappointment at the big hurdles. Luongo is supposed to solve all that.

"I've been very impressed by his determination," Bowness said. "This is a very humble young man. His work ethic has been second to none on our team."

There is also, stressed Bowness, a vital familiarization period Luongo has not yet emerged from.

"On the island and in Florida, he could walk around virtually unnoticed. Now, he can't go to a mall or a movie or a restaurant without people asking for an autograph or asking a question about the team," Bowness said. "There's a certain awareness of who he is, where he is and what he's doing at all times when he's out in public.

"There are far more demands on his time away from the rink now. When that's not a part of your world and it's suddenly thrust upon you, it takes some getting used to. There's a passion for hockey all over Canada, in Vancouver, that he needs to adjust to. And there is an adjustment, believe me. But it's a good pressure, a healthy pressure. If you're up to the challenge, it'll bring out the best in a person. And a guy like Roberto Luongo is definitely up to the challenge."

If the reality has not yet lived up to the expectations, his backers (and they are legion) advise the fence-sitters to revisit the question and take stock again, say, at the All-Star break.

"I'm feeling more and more comfortable," Luongo promised. "As that happens, I'm going to play better and better. You haven't seen my best yet."

That's what Canucks fans are banking on.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.