CORAL SPRINGS — Ahead of the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, the Florida Panthers launched a first-of-its-kind goaltending excellence department led by franchise legend Roberto Luongo.
Along with his younger brother Leo, renowned goalie coach Francois Allaire and longtime Florida goalie coach Robb Tallas, Luongo and the Panthers set out to scout and develop as many NHL-caliber goaltenders as possible.
“We want to build a stable of goalies here,” Luongo said.
“We want to have a supply of guys that can step in at any time with three or four guys who can play in the NHL and get some wins. That is what we are trying to build.”
The importance of having a deep system reared its head when Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight missed time last season.
Florida had a third goalie ready to step up.
Alex Lyon came in, backstopped the Panthers in the six-game winning streak that helped them clinch a playoff spot and earned a new contract with the Detroit Red Wings in the process.
Florida has kept that in mind and has made it a point to select a goaltender in each draft since forming the department in 2020, even after investing the 13th overall pick in the 2019 draft on Knight.
While some teams tend to draft multiple goaltenders at a time, the Panthers typically zero in on one or two guys a year and scout them hard to see if they would be a fit in the organization.
Being the only team in the league with this big of a goaltending department allows them to paint a better picture of who each goaltender is and if would be a good fit for the organization.
And in-depth scouting with some help from the amateur scouts is needed for a Panthers team that has traded away numerous picks in blockbuster trades and moves to reinforce competitive teams at the deadline.
“As a whole, we try to target one goalie per draft, but it’s not set in stone,” Luongo said.
“We put in the work all year long. We have a bunch of goalie scouts — one in Europe and a couple here in North America — and we work together all year to find guys not only at the amateur level but in the pros as well.
“When we get close to the draft, we talk with our amateur scouts and we put the list together and where they would fit in with the players and we’ll come up with a gameplan.
“Each draft, we will have anywhere from 15-to-20 goalies on the list depending on the season, but it was always about 5-or-6 guys that we really like who we would target and pinpoint which round we think we can get them in.”
The Panthers have taken advantage of the resources they have both in the draft and via free agency, selecting Tyler Muzelik in the sixth round of the 2022 draft, Olof Glifford in the fifth round of the 2023 draft and signing 26-year-old Swiss free agent Ludovic Waeber in recent years.
All three got to work with the goaltending excellence department during the team’s development camp this week, including Waeber, whose work with Allaire in a goaltending camp in Verbier, Switzerland helped sell him on the idea of coming to South Florida and being a part of it.
“I knew the man and his philosophy of goaltending,” Waeber said. “It played a big role.”
Having a support system as big and full of knowledge has made each goaltender Florida has called on draft night equally as excited to get to work as well.
“It’s helped me a lot and I think having a special goalie department is pretty cool,” Muzelik said.
“Having so many guys to learn from and support me is great. Having them on the ice and getting advice from them has been great, especially going into my first year of college.”
Each of the members of the Panthers’ goaltending excellence department provides a unique perspective on the game and the goaltending position, but Luongo has a path many can relate to.
As a player who many of the goalies Florida has brought in grew up idolizing — Waeber even admitted to having a poster of Luongo (in a Vancouver Canucks jersey) on his wall — the Hockey Hall of Famer knows a thing or two about developing as a goaltender in the NHL.
“He’s been an idol of mine growing up, so it’s pretty cool,” Muzelik said.
“Now to be working with him, getting pointers from him and learning through some of his experiences from his long and successful NHL career has been pretty cool.
“Luongo told me throughout his career, he played a lot of games and a lot of different generations. He had to evolve over time and try some new things so I think that is something that is important for me, especially as a younger guy. I just have to try some new things and figure out what works best for me now and in the future.”
The excitement each player Luongo works with has taken him back to his playing days when he lived through each of the experiences he is guiding his protégés through.
And that excitement comes back to him each time.
“It’s fun for me, too, because I always bring myself back to when I was that age and that’s how I relate to them,” Luongo said.
“For example, Glifford just got drafted this year. He’s 18 years old. I bring myself back to the Island when I first got there. My eyes were wide open and I was excited and nervous, so I know what he is going through.
“I really help them out moreso with that kind of stuff than the technical aspect of it. That’s what the coaches are there for. I’m more of a mental, experience and mindset type of guy.”
It is a collaborative effort between all four members of the department which helps paint the roadmap for each goalie as they make their way through their careers.
“The best part about our group is that we’re all connected but we are all a little bit different in our own way,” Luongo said.
“Sometimes, we have to be able to think outside the box and adapt just like when you are playing goal. You can’t always do the same thing. You have to have an open mind and make a tweak if you have to, but as long as you keep learning and getting better. That’s our goal.”
After three years, the department is still just getting started.
In the coming years after their draft, they hope drafted players like Muzelik and Glifford can develop into quality players who can step in and help the NHL squad if needed.
With goalies typically needing a longer timeline to develop, it could take close to a decade to see if its lofty goals can come to fruition.
But Luongo finds joy in being the head of this potentially innovative project.
“It’s almost like I manage my own little team on the side,” Luongo said.
“We talk to these guys, we care about them and we want them to develop, contribute and be a part of this organization in the future. It’s in the early stages still. We’re not going to see the fruits of that labor for a few more years when these guys will finally become a pro and go into the American League, the NHL and then we’ll have a pipeline of guys that are ready to play.”
PANTHERS DEVELOPMENT CAMP
(Open to the public at Coral Springs IceDen)
Today: Scrimmage 10-11
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
- Now: Free agency period is open
- Today-Friday: Development camp, Coral Springs
- Mid-September: Training Camp, South Florida
- Sept. 25: Preseason starts; Doubleheader v. Nashville @ Sunrise
- Oct. 7: Preseason ends; v. Tampa Bay Lightning @ Sunrise
- Oct. 12: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season at Minnesota Wild
- Oct. 19: 2023-24 Home Opener vs. Toronto Maple Leafs