Eight months after you started this stupid series, and you’re still writing these huh Drance?
The closer we get to the opening of the lockout shortened 2013 NHL season, set to begin for the Canucks in something like 52 hours (as of the time of this writing), the more likely it seems that Roberto Luongo will remain with the team to start the season. If that’s the case, Alain Vigneault appears likely to start Roberto Luongo in one of the team’s two games this weekend (against Edmonton or Anaheim):
AV: ‘last 2 years, when both goalies healthy, I’ve split duties on back to backs. You can read into that what you want.’ #Canucks
— Jeff Paterson (@patersonjeff) January 17, 2013
To add to the mounting evidence that Luongo could remain in Vancouver: the Toronto Maple Leafs, long thought to be the most likely Luongo trade destination have recently gutted their centre depth by trading Matt Lombardi to Phoenix, losing Keith Aucoin on waivers to the Islanders, and waiving fragile offensive centreman Tim Connolly on Thursday. It’s beginning to look an awful lot like Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri – the two most oft-rumoured Maple Leafs who might be sent to the Canucks in a Luongo package – will play key roles on the Maple Leafs this season.
So what are some of the advantages to keeping Luongo, and what’s the potential downside? Could this really hapen or is Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis simply working to a particularly excruciating deadline as is his usual modus operandi?
Why it makes sense to keep Luongo.
From a hockey perspective, keeping Luongo and Schneider around this season makes all the sense in the world. In a shortened seasons where injuries are likely to be a massive determinative factor in outcomes, having two number netminders could prove advantageous – even season-saving – for the Canucks.
Considering the wasteland that is the unrestricted free-agent goaltender market, there’s no way the Canucks can find better insurance should Schneider stumble than they’ve already got in-house in Roberto Luongo. Also, with the way Roberto Luongo’s performance has trended over the past 250 or so games, it’s possible that a shortened season might result in him just hitting his "sweet spot" stride headed into the postseason.
In terms of Luongo’s "trade value" too, if the Maple Leafs and the Canucks have broken off talks regarding a Luongo transaction (as appears to be the case based on Pierre LeBrun’s comments earlier this week), maybe the Canucks are best off waiting for the trade-deadline or the NHL draft to try and maximize Luongo’s value at either of those more traditional pressure points. Luongo has said that he’ll willingly stick around for at least the shortened season, so it’s not as if Mike Gillis has to rush into a deal here.
Why the Luongo trade is still imminent.
Many folks remain convinced that Luongo will not play another game for the Canucks. I was on that train as recently as a few days ago, but with the season opener so close at hand I find my resolve being shook.
Here’s my reasoning on why a last minute Luongo trade should probably still be considered the more likely outcome: playing Roberto Luongo in a regular season game at this point is extraordinarily risky, the club does need to shed his contract before the salary cap descends next season, keeping Luongo on the bench as a backup would represent something of a blackeye for Luongo (and the team), and sharing starts isn’t what Cory Schneider signed up for when he agreed to an extension this summer.
The risk argument is the easiest to dissect. What if Luongo plays against Edmonton in the second game of the back-to-back series the Canucks have on the schedule this weekend, stretches out to make a desperation save, and comes up lame? It’s not like he’s seen any NHL action since mid-April of 2012. Or what if he plays poorly in limited action through the first couple of months of the season?
Obviously the Canucks are having a tough time attracting a suitable offer on the trade market for Luongo’s services already – otherwise he’d have been moved as quickly as Jordan Staal was at the draft in June. If Luongo gets hurt or has a run of poor outings, his value will diminish even further. Is this a risk the team is willing to run? Maybe, but the Canucks management team has generally been risk-averse (with the exception of the Luongo contract and the Hodgson trade, I suppose)…
There’s also the structural realities of the NHL’s cap-system. Whatever Canucks management says: they can’t pay two goaltenders a combined 9.33 million against the salary cap indefinitely. Especially not when they’ve got the likes of Edler, Tanev, Higgins and Lapierre hitting free-agency this summer (and every one of them due a raise). Moving Luongo’s cap-hit is a necessity, and it’s one that is made even more urgent by the 2013-14 descending salary cap.
I’m also not sure that the Canucks are eager to "embarrass" Luongo by putting him in a backup role. Or, at least they shouldn’t be. Luongo will play the good sport and say all the right thing – including that he’s willing to spot Schneider this season and compete for starts – you can count on that. But his quote to RDS when he said that he doesn’t want to stay in Vancouver long-term also strikes me as compelling. Luongo’s a team first guy, but he knows it’s time to move on and the Canucks do as well. Luongo deserves to be "the guy" and he’s just not that in Vancouver anymore.
Meanwhile Cory Schneider has earned the right to be "the guy" too, and I think it’s safe to assume that that’s what he signed up for when he agreed to a lucrative extension with the Canucks this past summer. He certainly could’ve been a thorn in the team’s side had he decided to hit the open market and try to scare up a predatory offer sheet instead…
Obviously competing for your job is part of life as a professional athlete, but being a first-time starter and having arguably the second best active NHL goaltender sitting on the bench behind you, just can’t be an ideal situation for a young netminder.
Schneider and Luongo both seem to be mature, professional guys, and it helps that they get along famously. If push comes to shove they’ll roll with the punches on this, as they have all along to this point, but it’s hard to imagine that this is a situation that either player is enthralled with in private.
So when the Canucks play Anaheim on Saturday night, will they do so with Luongo remaining in blue and green, sporting a ballcap and managing the bench door? I have a tough time seeing it, but as the time runs off the clock before the opening of the season the prospect seems increasingly likely…