In defense of the scapegoat

Left to right: Kevin Bieksa, Roberto Luongo, Mason Raymond, all members of the Vancouver Canucks' "scapegoat trio". (Credit to Canucks blogger @ArtemChubarov for that term)

Something funny happened in Denver Saturday afternoon. Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa, after playing one of his worst games of the season against the Colorado Avalanche, made a diving save off an empty net attempt with his team down 2-1 with under a minute to go before recovering a curious bounce from an Erik Johnson clearing attempt that hit the stanchion and scoring the tying goal with 34 seconds on the clock.

Then, as the game head to a shootout, Vancouver fans online (at least the ones I have the pleasure of following on Twitter) seemed to be irate that Roberto Luongo had been left in for the shootout and that Mason Raymond would be the Canucks’ second shooter.

I discussed the frivolities of the shootout last week in this space and there’s some of evidence to suggest that the shootout is little more than a glorified coin flip. Perhaps there’s seven or eight guys at each end of the “good or bad” spectrum that can really make a difference in a team’s fortunes. As far as I’m concerned, Roberto Luongo isn’t one of them.

Roberto Luongo's recent play is the only thing keeping the Canucks in games.

Two days earlier in a game against Detroit, the Canucks were heavily out-shot early and Luongo had kept the team in it, making 40 saves en route to a 3-3 tie that ended up with the Canucks’ money goalie looking like a bit of a fool on shootout attempts from Pavel Datsyuk and Jiri Hudler.

As for Mason Raymond, he’s drawn a lot of criticism for his play on the local airwaves for being a perimeter player and a floater, or something to that effect. Raymond for the last two years has played below his potential and not as the second-line scoring winger a lot of media and fans in this town (occasionally, I call Vancouver home) expect him to be. He had just 15 goals last season (albeit in 70 games, therefore an 82-game pace of just below 18) and has just 6 in 27 games so far this season.

So, naturally, Raymond and Luongo were the heroes in the shootout in Denver, with Raymond scoring the only goal of the contest and Luongo making saves off Ryan O’Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog, and being fortunate enough to see Milan Hejduk wire one over the net.

None of this should be particularly surprising to fans of math, naturally. As badly as Vancouver fans like to think that Luongo is in the shootout, the truth is that he’s 25th out of 47 active goalies who have faced 50 or more shots in the shootout, better than Niklas Backstrom, Cam Ward, Miikka Kiprusoff or Ilya Bryzgalov.

A few more losses than deserved in the gimmick, and Luongo is forever thought of as a weak goalie when it comes to the shootout. Never mind the fact that Luongo dragged the Canucks into the shootout against Detroit by the skin of his teeth. Against Colorado, he was largely relied upon against as the Canucks have played some absolutely brutal hockey of late (Remember the November the Minnesota Wild had?) and was still ripped going into the extra period.

Just food for thought since I threw some football talk into this post: Is Chris Osgood hockey's Trent Dilfer?

There’s this belief in sports that one player, be it some sort of leader, usually the player who makes the most money and sells all the jerseys, has it within him to win or lose games individually. While that certainly isn’t the case with Mason Raymond in Vancouver, it is with Luongo. Regardless of his fantastic playoff run last season with a .931 even strength save percentage and earning a quality start rate of 58%, it turns out that a lot of media are still questioning his ability to win “when it counts” and the speculation on TV desks has grown rampant with what the Canucks will do in regards to their backup goaltender.

Shifting gears, the best example of the scapegoat, or the one player being able to win or lose a game singlehandedly comes in football. With Eli Manning’s Superbowl MVP yesterday, 25 of 46 players to receive that honour have been the quarterback of the winning team. 14 of 21 Grey Cup MVPs have also been of the same position, with the most recent recipient being BC’s Travis Lulay.

Boston.com’s Eric Wilbur took it a little far when he mocked the potential critics of losing quarterback Tom Brady:

But especially for you, boy wonder. It was one thing when you led the game off with a safety, which surely put plenty of faith into the heart of Patriot Nation, but just when you have the game, just when you might be able to run off the clock, you huck the thing downfield. Yes, if Wes Welker catches that thing, you’re in the clear, and fans will place the blame either way, but what happened to being safe in that situation?

That column made the rounds last night (as Deadspin’s Jack Dickey put it, the “column is satire, but it’s not clear until the last line, which most people [for obvious reasons] won’t ever reach.”) and already had at least one blog of prominence deliver a rebuttal which makes the satire very poorly-executed. Eric Wilbur isn’t particularly known for understanding comedic conventions.

You could scrub out Brady’s name in that paragraph and essentially re-write it for last season’s Stanley Cup Finals:

But especially for you, Bobby Lu. It was one thing when you led the series off with a shutout, which surely put plenty of faith into the heart of Canucks Army, but just when you have the Cup, just when you might be able to just win games at home, you give up a four-spot in Game Six. Yes, if the powerplay clicks better than 2-for-35, you’re in the clear, and fans will place the blame either way, but what happened to being solid in every situation?

In British Columbia, what to do with the scapegoats who afflict their Canucks team and have caused it so much obvious grief over the last year and a half is a constant source of chatter. The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch threw some shit at the wall in December that picked up the Luongo trade rumours and it shouldn’t be surprising that when you type “Mason Raymond” into Google that the instant auto-search option is “trade”. People have it set in stone that the Canucks need to do something with those two players since they can’t survive with all of them for some reason.

But if either of them leave, there will just be somebody else to pick on. Such is sports.