by Tyler Rowe
Yesterday was a very interesting day for the Vancouver Canucks and the Vancouver press. People are making a lot out of what Mike Gillis didn’t say about Alain Vigneault and Manny Malhotra. That’s as close as you can get to making something out of a mute not saying anything, as GMMG has a long history of being non-committal when put to questions like that. But people are also making a lot of Roberto Luongo’s comments today, and that is a lot more interesting to speculate on because something rather than nothing was said about the elephant in the room: Will the Vancouver Canucks and Roberto Luongo have to go their separate ways?
“Yeah, of course, if they ask me to,” said Roberto Luongo when asked if he would waive his no-trade clause. He looked and sounded a little bit sad, as if things weren’t going well, and he knew he might just have to break up with the hockey team he’s been with for the past six years. It sounded like he doesn’t hate the hockey team, and he thinks that if they really tried, they might be able to work it out. But Luongo is a strong, classy guy. Instead of reacting to the rejection that he must have felt when his team chose to play Cory Schneider (a younger goaltender to boot) ahead of him in both of the elimination games against the Kings, Luongo simply said “I think Cory was in a spot where he had earned it, I think he played extremely well not only this year but last year as well”. He spoke quickly and with a slight tremor in certain words, but also with economy and poise. “I wanted to win just as bad whether I was in or not”. Keep in mind that this is the same guy who was signed to play until the end of his career in Vancouver; the kind of contract that takes a player from his early thirties into his early forties is the hockey equivalent of a marriage.
Luongo continued to be classy in the face of his pain. He even said he was willing to stick around and share the load. When asked if he could stomach coming back in a tandem situation, or even playing behind Schneider, he said “It’ll be what’s best for the team. Whatever scenario it is, I’m okay with it. Whether it involves me being here or not, it’s OK. I think we have a lot of potential in this locker room, there’s a great group of guys, and a chance to do something special. Mike (Gillis) and I will talk again in the next little while, and we’ll draw up a plan”.
Roberto Luongo has unfairly earned a reputation in some Vancouver circles as being aloof and mercurial, but today he showed the player and person he is. “Obviously they got a guy here that is going to be a superstar in this league for the next 10, 12, 15 years. I’m okay with that as well. It is a business, and that’s the way it goes. I’ve loved being here the past six years, I think that my career has really taken off, did some incredible things, and if I’m here in the future then great”. He finished that statement by saying “if I’m not, that’s good also”, and that’s the most telling thing a pro like Bobby Lu could say. It might mean he’s fine staying, but it definitely means he’s fine leaving, which was probably not the case six or even two months ago. And it’s easy to see why that might make him a bit sad.
So, what’s next? It would be more than a little surprising to me if Vancouver did in fact go into the 2012-2013 NHL season with both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider under contract (to the tune of between $8.5 and $10-million sunk into the goaltender position). Mike Gillis did say specifically today that “we haven’t made a final determination if he’s fully ready”, but even if Chicago Wolves stand-out starter Eddie Lack isn’t ready to play at the NHL level, certainly a back-up goalie could be had for less than the $5.3-million Luongo makes or the at-least-$3.5-million Schneider will fetch in the off-season. So assuming that one of the two netminders is on the way out, what could each of them glean in trade?
Luongo has had some (overstated) consistency issues, but he is a top-flight NHL goaltender year after year, and he’s signed to a reasonable cap hit, even if the contract is long. Sure, Luongo gets 5.3-million for each of the next 10 years, but he only makes a total of 3.618 over his final three seasons, which effectively means his contract only has 7 years left on it. It would be easy to see a 40 year-old who only has around 5% of his contract left to earn hanging up the skates. It would be just as easy for a GM to bury that salary in the minors with the cap hit in carries in the bigs.
If Luongo is seen as a goalie that will maintain a high level of play for 5 more seasons as he should be, his contract-length must surely be seen as worth the risk. Moreover, many fans deride Luongo for “not getting it done”, but I doubt NHL General Managers see making it to game seven of the finals as a failure. Not to mention the gold medal. I also think it’s worth mentioning that Luongo did handle the Vancouver media, and there’s no reason to think he would balk at a move to an even harsher media market like Toronto.
As for Schneider, while one could argue that he’s been the better of the Vancouver duo over the past few months, he is a less proven asset and should (theoretically) garner the lesser return in trade. He might be the goalie that some GM’s covet most due to his performance, age, disposition and salary expectation, but because he still has fewer than 100 NHL starts, he is not worth as much as Luongo on the trade-market in my opinion.
There are a number of teams who might need a goalie this summer. For some, like those Columbus Blue Jackets who Gillis unceremoniously threw under the Central Ohio Transit Authority bus yesterday morning, it’s a certainty. For others like the New Jersey Devils, who may or may not be able to convince Martin Brodeur to delay retirement, it’s a big maybe. There’s one caveat though: If Schneider is traded, I’d wager it won’t be to a team in the West. Playing against Roberto Luongo for five-to-eight years is one thing. Playing against Schneider for up to 15 is another. And while Cory Schneider has little say in his fate as a restricted free agent, there is some question about whether or not Luongo would really go any old place the Canucks wanted. Waiving one’s trade clause is one thing, but telling Gina and the kids about the move to Columbus is another. Either way, the list of possible destinations for one of the two Canucks backstops is as follows (in alphabetical order):
1. Chicago Blackhawks.
Now, before Canucks fans get all bloodthirsty about the notion of Roberto Luongo in a Blackhawks sweater (which they reasonably would be), think about what might come back in that trade. The price could be as high as Patrick Sharp or Nicklas Hjalmarsson+.
And Blackhawks fans who think a Sharp for Luongo trade is out of the question would do well to remember what the upgrade from Crawford to Luongo might have meant in the series against the Coyotes. I’m just saying professional hockey is a business, and rivals do make trades from time to time. Chicago might feel like they can go forward with Corey Crawford, but after this season of Crawford and Ray Emery, they’re probably ready for a higher caliber of goalie in the Windy City. Of course, the system in Chicago is full of talented players like Brandon Saad, Jeremy Morin and Mark McNiell, but one would think Vancouver would be most interested in assets that help them immediately, rather than in a few years. I honestly think Luongo would relish the challenge to play before another hungry fanbase, and the possibility of one of hockey’s greatest redemption stories might be too tempting to pass up. It is just as likely that the core they have in Chicago would have long memories, whether they were being professionals or not.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets are hurting badly for talent at every position, but goaltending has been the most glaring issue. Starting goaltender Steve Mason has been atrocious since his 10-shutout rookie campaign in ‘08-’09, tallying only 60 wins in his past 158 games and his save percentage in the last three years is a shade under .900. This season he finished 42nd out of 44 goalies in SV% and 43rd out of 44 in goals against average.
Columbus is the type low low-pressure, low expectation environment that Luongo enjoyed in Florida, but it might be a tough sell as a destination. Still, while Rick Nash has a monstrous contract, his skill set is rare. Sending one of those two goalies (plus a little extra) just might see the big right winger in blue and green. Ryan Johansen is an extremely talented 19-year-old that any team would love to have, but the Blue Jackets would be loathe to give him up, even for a great young goalie. Same goes for the 2nd-overall pick in the 2012 draft (probably Mikhail Grigorenko, Alex Galchenyuk, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Murray or Mathew Dumba). A more reasonable expectation might be a package around RJ Umberger or Fedor Tyutin and prospects. It’s been said that Umberger and US national teammate Ryan Kesler don’t get along, but again, hockey is a business and the players understand that.
3. Florida Panthers
Home sweet home for Luongo and his family, returning to Florida makes a lot of sense for both sides. Not to mention that Vancouver and Florida have done more dealings together than Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.
Stud right-defenseman and 2010 3rd-overall pick Erik Gudbranson is probably out of the question, but maybe 2011 3rd-overall Johnathan Huberdeau isn’t. While Huberdeau doesn’t necessarily fulfill my “help right now” requirements, his talent ceiling is awfully high and it would be tough to turn down a deal built around him. Dimitry Kulikov is a talented defenseman with a big shot and Kris Versteeg would be a more-than-welcome addition to the Canucks, assuming his play this year isn’t an outlier.
4. New Jersey Devils
Whether the winningest goalie in NHL history is ready to step away from the game or not is the real issue here. But if Martin Brodeur does retire this summer, the Devils will want to replace him.
Zach Parise is an unrestricted free agent this summer as well, but unless NJ GM Lou(-mpaloompa) Lamoriello can turn it into a sign and trade, I don’t see a deal happening where Schneider or Luongo gets traded for Parise’s first negotiation rights. As for the rest of their team, the only player who the Devils a) might trade, b) is under contract for long enough to make the trade worthwhile to Vancouver and c) can help Vancouver immediately is Anton Volchenkov, and I can’t see Canucks fans being very happy with that deal unless he comes along with some great picks and prospects.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
Now here is where things get really interesting. Its a little over an hour from home for Luongo’s family, they have tons to offer in trade, and for the Tampa Bay Lightning, there is but a very-good-goaltender’s length between 3rd in the Eastern Conference and missing the playoffs.
Plus, as Team Canada GM for the Vancouver Olympics, Steve Yzerman is clearly a Luongo fan. I hope we can put to rest the old-as-time “Lecavalier for Luongo” convention, but they have a high draft pick in 2012 (#10), the very talented almost-pro RW Brett Connolly and the tantalizing 6’6” 230lb Victor Hedman on D. But perhaps the most intriguing trade would involve 36-year-old RW Martin St. Louis. St. Louis has three years left on his contract, is still playing at a high level, and would distribute the puck beautifully for Ryan Kesler and David Booth. It would be hard to envision the class-act St. Louis being anywhere other than Tampa Bay, but trading three years of an aging winger for 7-10 years of a great goaltender is a pretty good swap on Tampa’s side of things. They’ll miss him, but he’s not immovable. (Plus, any blockbusters involving Steven Stamkos are the visions of sugar-plums that will be dancing in my head during those times I choose not to think clearly.)
6. Toronto Maple Leafs
Again, I think Luongo would love a shot at proving himself all over again in a big market, but the question is whether or not the Leafs could offer a return for either goalie that the Canucks would want?
Any package that included 2012 RFA winger Nikolai Kulemin and 2014 RFA defenseman Jake Gardiner would be hard to turn down, but it would also be hard for Burke to give up Gardiner, the real centerpiece of a trade like that; this is especially true when considering the recent play of the other young buzz defenseman in Toronto, Luke Schenn. On top of that, Toronto has James Riemer, Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens, who haven’t really gotten a fair shake yet. But if Roberto Luongo would be under pressure in Toronto, it couldn’t be much worse than the pressure Brian Burke will be under next year if they miss the playoffs again. If those three young Toronto goalies can’t get it done next year, it might mean a GM change, so Toronto might be willing to pull out all the stops for a true #1 in the blue ice.
There is the argument that Luongo would not fetch a great return due to the low number of suitors. I think the more compelling argument is that Luongo would fetch a superb return not only for his skills, but because the goaltender free-agent cupboard is very bare this year. A list that’s topped with Nittimaki, Roloson and Huet doesn’t exactly hurt the eyes to behold. And the focus on this piece has been on Luongo rather that Schneider as the trade piece because frankly, that writing is on the wall. No matter what happens though, both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider are goalies I’d be proud to see in the crease for the Vancouver Canucks. And we have all summer to see how it will play out.