Former Vezina Trophy winner John Vanbiesbrouck knows what stability in net can do for a team. For an entire franchise, really.
And though the Panthers have undergone a massive facelift this summer -- new coach, a first overall pick, some marquee free-agent signings -- he thinks the team’s most significant change heading into the 2014-15 season was actually made in March: adding veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo at the trade deadline.
“I think, believe it or not, their No. 1 strength is in goal,” Vanbiesbrouck told ESPN.com in a recent telephone interview. “I think they have to believe they can win a 2-1 game and play to that strength of knowing that they’re gonna get the saves and really have the young guys to do the pushing to score.”
Vanbiesbrouck, who now serves as the general manager and director of hockey operations for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks, thinks Luongo could help lead the Panthers back to the playoffs, especially with the help of talented young stars such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov.
“I don’t think you can think you’re a playoff team without having a top quality goalie who can be a workhorse and I think that’s the word -- stability,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who amassed 374 career wins. “Take nothing away from the guys they’ve had in the past, but I just think that Roberto adds such a quality, a gold standard, to the position.”
Though Luongo dealt with a goaltending controversy in Vancouver that persisted over the past few years, Vanbiesbrouck thinks he has been able to maintain a level of consistency (.919 save percentage over the past 10 seasons) and professionalism that is impressive.
“He’s got a great head on his shoulders, a great mind for the game and he’s very consistent,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “[Canada’s] gold medal in Vancouver, for most people they think that’s the pinnacle of his career, but I think his consistency ... is his gold standard within the league.
"You go in facing Roberto Luongo and you know you will have a tough night scoring goals. That’s like having a 20-game winner on your mound every night.”
Having those guys to mentor younger players will be essential.
“I like the way they got some good character guys in the room,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “I think they can keep it together."
Vanbiesbrouck also thinks coach Gerard Gallant will provide a strong new voice inside the room. Gallant spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach for the Montreal Canadiens under Michel Therrien, and Vanbiesbrouck said he found the Habs to be a team whose coaching staff really coaxed the most out of its players.
“I think he’s going to be demanding, yet sensible,” Vanbiesbrouck predicted.
Now a hockey executive, Vanbiesbrouck has a newfound appreciation for the many layers of skill and experience it takes to assemble a quality organization from the top on down.
He also can appreciate the time it takes for a team to adapt to a new philosophy.
“I’ve learned a ton as far as how to handle people. You learn from mistakes mostly, which is humbling,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “I'm trying to create a strategy here, and strategies take a lot of time to have your vision come to fruition.
“My goals and ambitions are to make Muskegon the best I can make it, and hopefully good things happen from that.”