When the Canucks were ousted in the first round of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, the disappointment was obviously considerable - and the debates that have ensued have been equally unceremonial. In hindsight, the order of things may have helped the dust settle. Before media and fans could embark on a feeding frenzy calling for players to be dumped and coaches to be given walking orders, the first matter to address was whether Canucks fans would see the return and extension of GM Mike Gillis. While of course there are always people on either side of an issue, the question really was as close to a no-brainer as they come. The same sentiments that Gillis expressed regarding his coach (that you don't get rid of a guy on the heels of so much success) certainly applied to himself, and upon being re-signed, he in turn brought back coach Alain Vigneault, although, of course, neither decision transpired without significant debate on CDC. There was an almost natural progression of tempered blame, but despite the time it took to sort out those matters, one pivotal question remained in the background - the status of Vancouver's dynamic goaltending tandem, and the future of the player at the crux of the franchise through the term of it's greatest success, netminder Roberto Luongo.
Roberto Luongo's post game comments after the game 5 loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions started a snowball of speculation that his tenure in Vancouver may come to an end with the emergence of Cory Schneider, buoyed by the fact that the young Vancouver goaltender started crucial games 3, 4 and 5 of the opening round series. While the decision to start Schneider was not a determination that the veteran was being ousted, events were certainly conspiring to force a change, and the media wasted no time asking the perhaps timely yet crude questions.
“It’s going to be what's best for the team,” said Luongo. “Whatever scenario that is, I’m ok with it. Whether that involves me being here or not is ok.”
Luongo's words have been taken in various ways, but what they clearly were not is a trade request or anything resembling one - what evolved in the time since has been an apparent consensus that the resolution to the Canucks wealth in netminding is to move the veteran goaltender, hastened by the approaching RFA status of incumbent Cory Schneider.
Despite his perennial consistency, there has been no shortage of exaggerated devaluations of Luongo, something that pretty much comes with the territory between the pipes. The idea that his career is in decline is clearly contradicted by the reality that he just finished yet another solid season, ironically a season where he performed above his average over his impressive career. The idea that his contract is an obstacle is likewise overstated - reasonable if not below market value cap hit at 5.3 million, and the term is misleading as has been acknowledged by the likes of Bob McKenzie - the last three years his salary drops off considerably, and the buyout on his contract is only 914 thousand a year... The exaggerated downside of his contract is being over-stated by Leafs lobbyists, but the reality is that the deal is somewhat of a cap circumvention. The other reality is that Luongo is not showing any signs of decline, and is an extremely hard worker, which indicates that his longevity is as likely as some of his goaltending peers - he has many good years left in him. Say what you want about Luongo - he is a great goalie, a winner, and that isn't about to change anytime soon. When it comes to the microanalytics about his imperfections, the reality is that if you look at any other goalie in the NHL, they have all had their share of ups and downs - and few of them have had the ups or the consistency that Roberto Luongo has. Just by way of comparison Luongo has 284 wins over the past 8 seasons and a lifetime save percentage of .919 - Martin Brodeur has 291 wins over that span and a lifetime .913 sv%. Despite that, Canucks fans have tended to take Luongo for granted, but if he is in fact dealt, there are many of us who will miss him dearly... and don't appreciate the insulting devaluations, for reasons that go beyond his trade value.
The movement of very similar contracts (Richards and Carter) for market value returns would indicate that Toronto's attempts to lowball are simply going to exclude them from competitive advantage - add to that the further irony that they just added a 25.5 million contract over 6 years for a player who has only topped 20 goals once in his career and it becomes clear that Burke's comments that he doesn't condone long term contracts and won't "stripmine" his system are merely classic Burke hyperbole...
If you listen to the Eastern hockey talk of late, you might start to believe that Toronto is the only market with any likelihood at all of landing Luongo - they are also intent on convincing people that the price will be relatively low in addition. The downside of such lobbying it twofold - first, they are raising the expectations of Leafs fans that they are positioned to finally poach a perennial top notch goaltender, and second, they are simultaneously attempting to devalue Luongo, raising the additional expectation that they can pawn off a second rate prospect or salary dump in exchange. Add to the game playing the suggestions by Damien Cox that they might (despite Burke's adamant distaste for them) offer sheet Schneider in order to increase their leverage and what you have out of Toronto is a whole lot of contradiction, wishful thinking and souring of the lines of communication. Aside from the fact that they lack the extra assets to make a deal, their "untouchables" themselves aren't particularly attractive and unlikely to improve the Canucks roster - add it up and you have a recipe without ingredients.
Here is Pierre Lebrun's comments after the trade deadline:
"He’s still a top-level goalie and the Canucks are adamant they will make a hockey deal, not a CBA dump deal. You can’t blame Vancouver for that. Simply put: if Toronto gets Luongo, for example, it makes the playoffs next season, in my opinion. Think that shouldn’t be motivation enough for the Leafs?
Know this from the Panthers: They’ve decided this weekend they’re going to see this Luongo thing through. They’re going to focus on it seriously. "
With all due respect to Toronto, Florida has seemed to be a more likely destination all along. First, the fans in Vancouver don't want to see Luongo in a Leafs jersey - a large portion of the rest of Canada responds with an irrational backlash at the prospect of Canucks success, and the feeling is mutual - we enjoy watching the Leafs lose and miss the playoffs, and Luongo in a Leafs jersey would be a serious threat to both. Whereas with the Florida possibility, there is the obvious history of Luongo's tremendous rise to stardom as a young Panther and the fact that his wife and family have maintained their roots there. There is the history of Mike Gillis and Dale Tallon cutting deals. There is the goaltending reality of the Panthers - their starter Theodore has one year left on his contract at 1.5 million, their prospect Markstrom is only 22 and has had injury problems with his knees, and Luongo would be a solid upgrade for a rising team that just made the playoffs and had a very strong showing against the eventual Eastern Conference Champions. The Florida Panthers, in addition, have only 40.5 million tied up in cap space at the present time (suggestions they can't afford Luongo are not very credible) and Tallon was not shy about going out and acquiring Campbell and his 7+ million cap hit. In addition, the Florida Panthers are teeming with young prospects... on the blueline they have Kulikov, Gudbranson, Robak, Ellerby, Petrovic, and just added yet another first rounder in Mike Matheson. At center they are likewise loaded with young talent - Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Matthias, Howden... the majority of these young prospects were first round draft picks and the additional thing that makes sense in this scenario is those assets are at positions of interest to the Canucks. Vancouver's acquisition of Gaunce and Mallet with their 1st and 2nd picks may slightly alter their interests, but needless to say, Florida has many more attractive assets, and a far greater ability to part with a few than the Toronto Maple Leafs. If I were to guess, I'd think a deal for one of the Panthers young near NHL-ready centers (Bjugstad) and a young blueline prospect (Petrovic) would be a good return, in addition, it is possible that Theodore come the other way as an option/insurance to take the pressure off Eddie Lack to step up at the NHL level. The Panthers have expressed reluctance to deal their top young prospects (likely Kulikov, Huberdeau and Gudbranson) - even if they held firm, they have a lot of options to work with. They also have a handful of forwards (Goc, Upshall, Bergenheim) that could make sense as the third piece if the Canucks decided they need someone who can contribute now, were to add a second piece to the mix, or Florida insisted upon returning some salary...
Florida may have needed a little time to sort out what they would be getting in the NHL entry draft, but it is not inconceivable that with that assessment they now have a better idea of what assets they may be prepared to move to land the veteran goaltender. The timing is right - for Vancouver, signing Schneider before July 1st would be advantageous to avoiding the potential of offer sheets, although that may happen regardless of the status of Roberto Luongo - the Canucks have made it fairly clear that they are committed to Schneider. In addition, having a less complicated idea of the roster going into free agency may be advantageous, but really, with the quality and depth of the Canucks system, there is absolutely no urgency to add pieces. Some people may be getting impatient, but the real window or time to deal is still wide open, Gillis' back is anything but up against a wall, as wishful Toronto thinkers may try to imply - and needless to say, there are plenty of other possibilities not even touched upon here. In any event, we''ll see if the Panthers and the Canucks are prepared to get "serious" - for all parties involved, that seems like the best outcome. We'll see you in the Stanley Cup Finals Roberto.