Up until almost the moment he began to address the press on Tuesday afternoon, Lack was hungrily scarfing down a sandwich from a favourite local shop. The Carolina Hurricanes netminder had barely positioned himself in the middle of a swarm of microphones, smart phones, voice recorders and cameras when he began to joke that the Sedin twins would be unlikely to crash his crease when he faces his former teammates on Wednesday night, but that he expected to see a good deal of Alex Burrows.
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Affable and at ease on the record, Lack seems to be at his best when he’s just being himself. In goal he’s most effective when he plays deeper in his crease, on social media he endears himself to fans when he lets his goofball flag fly and in media scrums he often seems like he could crack wise for hours.
There’s something odd about witnessing a Lack scrum. It’s not quite a spectacle, but it can definitely feel out of place in an NHL locker room. Instead of the usual cliché-filled drudgery and on-script responses, Lack shows vulnerability and takes the time to provide insight and land jokes.
On Tuesday he kidded about several former teammates and rehashed his friendship with Roberto Luongo. He mentioned that he missed the fans in Vancouver, several restaurants and his barber. He spoke at length about his taco sponsorship deal with a Raleigh-based Tacqueria called Gonza. They’ve named a Taco after Lack, called the Lacko Taco, which Lack insists mimics his personality because it has beef, sour cream and is a little bit spicy.
Whatever that means, it’s a good line.
Considering that at least one local reporter left the rink insisting that he was off to purchase a sandwich like the one Lack was eating prior to his scrum, Gonza may have found the perfect pitchman.
Lack wasn’t with the Canucks for very long, and he’s been outperformed this season by both of the goaltenders Vancouver opted to keep instead of him. His former teammates struggled mightily to come up with anything generous to say about him on Tuesday. Still, it’s undeniable that Lack’s relatable personality ingratiated him to a rabid fanbase that tends to have a complicated relationship with goalies.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” Lack said on Tuesday as to why he was received so well in Vancouver. “It kind of started in the minors too, and carried over here. I can’t really explain it.”
“I would say that it’s because he’s very genuine,” opined Wyatt Arndt, a comic hockey writer with VanCityBuzz.
Arndt and Lack were both just starting out in the industry when they first met in 2013, and they quickly became friends.
“I just sent him a photoshop on Twitter as a joke, and we started talking,” Arndt recalled to Sportsnet on Tuesday. “Eventually I got him on (my) podcast, he was rehabbing from a hip injury and took a cab to my house, did a podcast with me, sang Meatloaf and it just went from there.
“It was like an Almost Famous thing, where I didn’t want to use him for scoop-y things, and I think he appreciated that.”
The Almost Famous reference is pertinent. Lack had developed something of a rock star persona in Vancouver prior to his controversial trade on the second day of the 2015 NHL Draft.
In a sign of the times, it was Lack’s off-kilter social media presence that seemed to resonate. The 28-year-old interacted with fans like Arndt in a way we rarely see from NHL players. He also managed to expertly ape Luongo’s light-hearted, quasi-subversive tone.
Lack’s Twitter game remains strong, but he’s cooled it a bit lately.
“I’ve grown up a little bit,” Lack says about his more subdued recent use of social media. “I still send a tweet every once in a while.”
Though Lack’s personable veneer made him a fan favourite, that shouldn’t obscure the fact that he’s also a serious student of the game. Lack was an early adopter of post-integration techniques and only took about 20 days off following Vancouver’s playoff elimination this past summer. Then he hit the ice with an independent consultant to experiment with cutting edge head-trajectory techniques designed to improve his puck tracking.
While he put in the work, Lack has struggled in his first season with the Carolina Hurricanes, especially early in the year when he didn’t take to some technical adjustments suggested by Hurricanes goaltending coach David Marcoux. As outlined in November by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the Hurricanes were asking Lack to make saves with his knees in white ice.
The technical adjustments didn’t play to Lack’s strengths, which are his size, positioning and patience.
“He’s very cerebral,” said Sportsnet’s Corey Hirsch. “He’s a guy that thinks a lot while he’s playing; about his positioning, where things should be, and he’s perfect technically. I think the adjustment hurt him a little bit.”
Playing further out of his crease exposed Lack’s relative weaknesses, like his skating. He has particularly struggled on the toughest shots to stop: shots from dead centre in the high slot, what analytics company Sportlogiq refers to as ‘the red zone.’ On those shots, Lack’s save percentage is over 11 per cent points below league average.
“It’s tough,” Lack told reporters of struggling to start the year. “Hockey is my life too, you know? When the hockey is going bad, everything else seems to be, too.”
In recent weeks, Lack has reverted back to playing deeper in his crease. His save percentage still sits south of .900, but he’s managed a .923 save percentage in his last six starts.
“I kind of went back to the basics, playing a little deeper in the paint, that’s what I’ve been comfortable with before,” Lack said on Tuesday.
“I feel like I’m in a pretty good state in my game right now.”
Lack’s play is stabilizing at the right time. Canucks PR indicated to Sportsnet that some in-game recognition for Lack’s tenure should be expected on Wednesday night. If Lack plays decently well, we might expect a few scattered “Eddie! Eddie!” chants, too.