Farewell, Roberto Luongo. A big piece of Florida Panthers history has faded to past tense.
The man who guarded the Panthers’ goal for more than twice as many games as anybody else said goodbye to hockey Wednesday afternoon, retiring at age 40 after 19 NHL seasons.
With typical good humor Luongo announced his decision on Twitter by saying, “I’ve decided to take my talents to a South Beach retirement home.”
Cats fans in turn say goodbye to one of the most popular players in franchise history, an 11-season Panther from 2000 to 2006 and again from 2014 through this past season. He was the league’s active leader in games played and games won in goal, and made five all-star teams.
All-time, Luongo is second in games played in goal, second in saves and third in wins. He is, in our view, a certain future Hall of Famer, and he’ll certainly get the ceremonial night he deserves from the club this coming season. Luongo, his wife Gina and their two kids live in Parkland, where he did all he could to help the community heal after the Stoneman Douglas tragedy. Look for Luongo to continue to have a role with the club in some capacity -- but off ice.
“This is one of the toughest decisions I’ve faced in my life and it took me as long time to make it,” Luongo wrote in an open letter on NHL.com and the Patnthers’ website. “After thinking about it a lot over the past two months and listening to my body, I made up my mind. It just feels like the right time for me to step away from the game.”
He said his kids Gianni and Gabriella cried when he told them.
“We cried together,” he said.
General manager Dale Tallon called Luongo “a beloved player in our franchise’s history.”
Said team captain Aleksander Barkov: “I’ll never forget the presence he brought to the lockerroom. I”m in awe of the legacy that he left on this franchise.”
When Dwyane Wade retired from the Heat after last season it was the toughest goodbye in Miami sports since Dolphins legend Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. This is not to put Luongo on that rarest, highest echelon. He did not equal their accomplishments, and hockey is simply not held as passionately as football and basketball in South Florida.
But Luongo’s retirement certainly is the most noteworthy in Panthers history.
It was expected, and it was the right time.
“Lu” had been limited by hip issues and by the declining production to be expected of a goaltender his age, with a career-low saves percentage of .899 last season and a goals-against average (3.12) that was his highest ever as a starter.
“I just wasn’t happy with my performance,” he said. “I wanted to be on top of my game, stealing wins. It just wasn’t there.”
As Bob Dylan noted you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows. Luongo hardly needed intuition to discern the Panthers were ready to move on from him. The decision to retire was his. General manager Dale Tallon said he could have returned for another season, although clearly it would have been in a secondary role.
With NHL free agency starting in five days, the Panthers are front-runners to spend big and land Sergei Bobrovsky, the most coveted goalie available. Bobrovsky, 30, is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s best goalie. He is a workhorse who has averaged 63 starts the past three seasons with Columbus.
Bobrovsky is Florida’s main target in free agency, and the club has money to spend. The Cats also have veteran James Reimer on the roster and a young prospect they like in goal in Sam Montembneault. And, last week, Florida drafted Boston College goalie Spencer Knight with the 13th overall pick — the league’s highest-drafted goaltender since 2010.
These weren’t subtle hints to Luongo that the Panthers were moving on. They were sirens and flashing lights.
“It’s a bit of a tough situation,” he admitted in March. “I still love the game.”
He leaves it as the Panthers’ all-time greatest player by at least one measure. Hockeyreference.com has a statistic called career “point shares,” a formula that compares players of every position. Luongo had 124 point shares. Next-best on the Panthers career list is 59.
His overall career total of 217.8 point shares stands third all time, trailing only Wayne Gretzky and Ray Bourque, and just ahead of Gordie Howe and Jaromir Jagr. That is the company he keeps.
He did not win championships here like Wade did, or spectacularly break records like Marino did.
But Roberto Luongo might be as close to those guys as the Florida Panthers have had.
To hockey fans in South Florida, an era ends with gratitude for a career well led.