Declaring your team's most important player is not a simple thing. It's not always the most valuable guy or the highest points producer. It is the player who makes your team go; the one you can't afford to lose, even if all he contributes can't be measured by fancy stats.
Panthers' Most Important Player: Roberto Luongo, Goaltender
Remember the craziness that ensued last season when both Florida Panthers goaltenders, Roberto Luongo and backup Al Montoya, went down with injury in the same game? There was all sorts of confusion on the bench; general manager Dale Tallon was seen pacing in the tunnel; and goaltending coach Robb Tallas had to throw on gear in the event his name was called. Eventually, Luongo returned from a local Florida hospital -- where he got an MRI -- and re-entered the game, his presence met with a massive sigh of relief.
The bizarre scenario brought some comic relief to an otherwise pedestrian Tuesday night game in March against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Panthers actually spun the incident into a neat promotional event for fans by hosting a goaltender tryout that same month. But imagine if Luongo had missed significant time?
No player is as important to the Panthers’ success as the veteran netminder, who was acquired for his second tour in South Florida by a rebuilding team rife with young talent like Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Aaron Ekblad, who won the Calder Trophy this season as the league’s top rookie.
Luongo, 36, provided the Panthers exactly what they needed: a chance to win each night as he posted a solid 28-19-12 record with a 2.35 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. His steadiness bailed out the young Panthers on numerous occasions, and they almost pulled off a surprise postseason berth as a result, finishing seven points out of the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
As the team’s burgeoning stars, including Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck, continue to gain maturity and develop at the NHL level, Luongo’s experience and veteran savvy will continue to be vital. After a disappointing 2014-15 season for Montoya, who finished 6-7-2 with a 3.01 goals-against average and .892 save percentage, Luongo is guaranteed to shoulder a heavy workload.
If he can maintain his consistency, or even elevate his game, the Panthers have every reason to believe they should be a playoff team. If the Panthers are without Luongo for any chunk of time, one has to believe that their postseason outlook becomes much more dire.