By GERALD NARCISO
Published: January 11, 2013
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The resolution of the lockout might have wiped the slate clean for most N.H.L. players, but for Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo, the end of one wait was the beginning of a new one.
Once considered one of the league’s premier goalies and the cornerstone of theCanucks franchise, the 33-year-old Luongo, who has a .919 career save percentage, enters the lockout-shortened season facing an uncertain future.
The rise of his teammate Cory Schneider, who replaced Luongo as the team’s starting goalie during last season’s playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings, was the first indication that Luongo’s tenure with Vancouver was coming to an end. The club’s signing of Schneider, 26, to a three-year, $12 million deal over the summer was the second.
Because of some inconsistent play — most notably during the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, when the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins — Luongo has also been harshly criticized. Local news media outlets, as well as the passionate fan base here, have long blamed Luongo for the team’s shortcomings in the postseason.
Arriving from Florida on Thursday afternoon with a single duffle bag, Luongo was barely out of the terminal before a group of reporters surrounded him. A two-time All-Star, Luongo shrugged when asked about the trade speculation that preceded his arrival.
Luongo said he would not take the trade rumors seriously until he heard something from Mike Gillis, the Canucks’ general manager. “You kind of let it go and take it for what it is,” Luongo said.
Still, his departure seems imminent. His destination is less clear.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Florida Panthers, for whom Luongo played five seasons (2000-6), are his preferred destinations. A Montreal native, Luongo spends his off-seasons in Coral Springs, Fla. The Edmonton Oilers and the Philadelphia Flyers are also said to have interest in him.
Luongo has 10 years left on a 12-year, $64 million deal. He is the Canucks’ highest-paid player this season at $6.7 million (prelockout salary), and his desire for a trade may match management’s. Although his contract has a no-trade clause, he has agreed to waive it if Gillis finds a suitor.
Vancouver faces a challenge in finding a team willing to take on Luongo’s long-term deal and also willing to offer quality talent in return. Gillis would prefer to resolve the situation quickly because a dragged-out process could distract a Canucks team that has the potential to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy last season for having the league’s best record but fell to the Kings, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, in the first round.
Luongo vowed to remain professional and support the team. “I always said I’d be ready to come back here if need be,” he said, “and I’m happy to be back here, and I’m excited to see the guys.”
On Thursday at the University of British Columbia, where Canucks players have congregated for voluntary skate sessions, several expressed their support for Luongo.
“Bobby has been a great teammate for me and everyone here,” forward Chris Higgins said.
Right wing Alex Burrows said: “You look at his work ethic every day, he works harder than anyone. You look at his numbers throughout the years, he’s been a top goalie and still is.”
Despite his competition with Schneider over the past few seasons, Luongo said they remained friends.
“I think we’ve actually spoke throughout the whole lockout process, last summer as well,” he said. “So we’re cool; we’re good to go.”
Higgins said he believed the perceived rivalry between the goaltenders was simply speculation fueled by the news media.
“The only thing that’s annoying about it is the questions,” Higgins said. “He has a great relationship with Cory. The only distraction is outside the room. It’s not an issue in the locker room.”
On Friday, Luongo skated with his teammates, looking comfortable and focused on the ice. Each spectacular save during a scrimmage prompted the traditional “Luuu” chant from onlookers in the stands.
“The first practice, he looked really good; he’s in great shape,” said Burrows, who added that keeping Luongo on the roster would help the team. “I’m not the one making the call, but I think one of the reasons we had so much success last year is because we had two great goalies.”
Edited by dudeone, 12 January 2013 - 04:17 PM.