5.28.2011

Battle of the Goalies: Roberto Luongo vs. Tim Thomas

Tim Thomas celebrates the Eastern Conference win with Johnny Boychuk. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
After last season's Stanley Cup Finals, people everywhere proclaimed that the matchup of the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks proved that goaltending was no longer a requirement for being a successful team, and that defensive depth was the single most important thing. Teams should spend more money on elite defensive talents (like Chris Pronger (set to make $7.6 million next season),  Kimmo Timonen (set to make $5M), Duncan Keith ($8M), and Brent Seabrook ($7M)), as opposed to goaltending. Not only that, but that money would not have to be spend on top-level goaltending; adequate goaltending should have been enough (see the 2010-2011 Philadelphia Flyers for an example).

How very short sighted of them.

Luongo makes a save against the Sharks. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
This year's playoffs have been defined by balanced rosters as well as incredible goaltending. Both of the teams that made the Stanley Cup Finals have Vezina finalists in net for them, and all three Vezina finalists made it past the first round (Roberto Luongo's Canucks dispatched Pekka Rinne's Predators, so all three did not make it past the second round). Dwayne Roloson's goaltending is a large reason the Lightning went as far as they did, as was Antti Niemi for the Sharks. If anything, this year's playoffs have proved that goaltending cannot be undervalued, and those teams that do that do it at their own peril. As I said, see the Philadelphia Flyers from this season; they had among the deepest teams in the NHL this season, with three solid defensive pairings and four good offensive lines... but a constant carousel in net that never got resolved was their downfall. In their second round sweep against the Bruins, Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher got terrorized by the Bruins offensive, to the tune of 20 goals in 4 games.


Luongo in Panthers colors. (LIFE)
This year is both Roberto Luongo's and Tim Thomas' first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, though both have taken incredibly different roads. Luongo's is the much more conventional one; he was drafted 4th overall by the New York Islanders (bet they wished he was playing for them right now) back in 1997. In 2000, following the drafting of Rick DiPietro 1st overall by the Isles, Luongo and center Olli Jokinen were sent by the GM Mike Milbury to the Florida Panthers for right wing Mark Parrish (currently playing in the AHL for the Sabres organization) and center Oleg Kvasha (currently playing in the KHL). Luongo played well in Florida, even finishing with a 93.1% save percentage in the 2003-04 season while playing 73 games. In 2006, Luongo was traded to the Vancouver Canucks along with defenseman Lukas Krajicek and a sixth round draft pick in exchange for Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen, and goalie Alex Auld. There, Luongo continued his assent into the NHL's goaltending elite, and in 2009 signed a 12 year contract extension worth $64 million and running through the 2021-2022 season (when Luongo will be 43 years old). In 2010, Luongo was in net for Team Canada as they beat the United States in overtime to win the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and this season received a nomination for the Vezina trophy as the NHL's top goaltender.

Thomas in HIFK gear. (NHL)
Tim Thomas had quite a more interesting route to his current position as one of the best goalies in the NHL. Tim Thomas was drafted 217th overall (a pick that doesn't exist in modern drafts) by the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche) back in 1994. Between 1993-94 and 1996-97, Thomas played college hockey at the University of Vermont (funny story - Dwayne Roloson was the starting goalie for the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, which is why Thomas chose to play at the University of Vermont), and then continued his career in both the ECHL and IHL before leaving to play for HIFK Helsinki of the Finnish SM-Liiga, winning the SM-Liiga that same year (1997-98) with many other future NHLers, such as Brian Rafalski, Olli Jokinen, Jarkko Ruutu, and Kimmo Timonen. Thomas then played the next season both in the AHL and with HIFK in the SM-Liiga, and played the 1999-00 season in the IHL. He played the season after that in the Swedish Elite League, then returned to the SM-Liiga in 2001-02, playing this time for Kärpät instead of HIFK.

Tim Thomas celebrates the Bruins' Game 7 victory.
(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
In 2002-03, Tim Thomas joined the Bruins organization, playing with the Providence Bruins of the AHL as well as getting a few games with the Bruins in the NHL; he had to wait 9 seasons between being drafted and getting his first taste on NHL action. The next season was spent entirely in the AHL, and the NHL lockout in 2004-05 resulted in Tim Thomas returning to the SM-Liiga to play this time for the Jokerit. Following the end of the lockout, Thomas played part of the 2005-06 season with both the Bruins of the AHL and of the NHL, before finally joining the Bruins full time in 2006-07. In 2009, after having become the Bruins' starting goaltender over the past few seasons, Tim Thomas won his first Vezina trophy as top goaltender in the NHL. In the 2009-10 season, Thomas struggled to find his game as he was relegated to the backup role behind Finnish rookie Tuukka Rask, who had an absolutely stellar season. Thomas did go to win silver at the 2010 Winter Olympics with Team USA. Assumed to be the backup again for the 2010-11 season, Thomas instead seized the starting job at the beginning of the season and did not let go. Tim Thomas finished the 2010-11 regular season with an absurd 2.00 goals against average, and beat Dominik Hasek's NHL single-season average save percentage record by a tenth of a percent, having a 93.8% save percentage as opposed to Hasek's 93.7%. Needless to say, Thomas was once again nominated to win the Vezina trophy as best goalie, which he is the leading candidate to win.

Luongo skates around in practice. (AP)
This year's Stanley Cup finals will feature two of the very best, if not the two best goalies in the NHL today playing at the top of their game when it matters most. Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo have never experienced the Stanley Cup finals, but I doubt that will affect them much. What is almost certain is that, in this battle of deep and powerful teams, both goalies will have a hand in deciding the outcome of the games. For goaltending does matter quite a bit at this level of play, and Tim Thomas' and Roberto Luongo's combined $16 million in salaries are testament to the value their play has to their respective teams. Who will come out on top? Tim Thomas, arguably the better goalie on a slightly weaker team, or Roberto Luongo, not quite as good statistically but with a more dominant squad playing in front of him? We just have to wait and find out.
Tim Thomas, net minder. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

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