Photo Credit: DARRYL DYCK , THE CANADIAN PRESS
Today marks the end of our “bold moves” series examining recent decisions by Mike Gillis. The past bets – be it Keith Ballard, or David Booth, or Zack Kassian – haven’t paid off, and we have about six years to determine whether or not the Canucks’ decision to go with Cory Schneider between the pipes instead of Roberto Luongo does. That said, we’ll do our best to get way out ahead of this one today so read past the jump.
Let’s start with a b of background. No player was as polarizing in a Canucks sweater as Roberto Luongo – not even Pavel Bure or Todd Bertuzzi. Traded for Bertuzzi (rather appropriately) after two months of rumours following the Canucks’ disastrous 2005-2006 season, Luongo took control of a team of newcomers and brought them back to the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was a welcome change after years of sub-standard goaltending in the post-Kirk McLean era. The “goalie graveyard” became a well-known term in Vancouver during those darkest of days, to the point where Dan Cloutier became a four-year starter for the Canucks.
The first year with Luongo, the Canucks made it to the second round, Luongo was nominated for both the Hart Trophy and the Vezina. The second year, they missed the playoffs and fired Dave Nonis. The third and fourth years, Luongo allowed 7 goals and 5 goals in elimination games, both against the Chicago Blackhawks, and questions arose about his ability to handle pressure in the playoffs.
Now, a little under two years removed from a Cup finals appearance in 2011, the Canucks have clearly decided to go with Cory Schneider in goal. Schneider has started six straight games, winning all six, including both games of a back-to-back as the Canucks refused to play one of the best goaltenders in NHL history. Whether they refused to play Luongo for fear he will get hurt and become untradeable, or because they just wanted to ride Schneider’s hot hand, we can’t really say for sure.
Photo Uncredited Via VanHockey.com
Luongo hasn’t been traded yet, and we don’t know to who he’ll be traded and we don’t know to where. But the specific cost of this bold move has more to do with the opportunity cost of shipping out a superior goaltender who possesses less trade value for one who is inexperienced but would net the club more in a potential trade.
Up until two weeks ago, Luongo had the better stats of the two goalies this season. A couple of bad games from Luongo and a hot streak from Cory Schneider has changed all that, but what that doesn’t change is that Luongo is one of a group of four goaltenders who has proven himself able to consistently record a high even strength save percentage year after year after year.
With the window closing on the Sedins run as point-a-game players, with Kevin Bieksa now in his thirties, Dan Hamhuis reaching that point quickly (he’ll turn 30 in December) and a limited number of prospects on the horizon – one wonders why the Canucks wouldn’t go “all in” this season. That is, keep the known commodity and sell Schneider’s potential for a higher return to fix the problems with the club’s current group of skaters.
Since the very public declaration by Luongo that he would waive his no-trade clause if asked, Gillis has probably out-smarted himself by asking for a king’s ransom. Meanwhile he’s sat back and watched the price tag for Luongo drop as good goaltenders have become more fungible.
Perhaps a decade ago, the elite goaltenders such as Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy and Ed Belfour may have been of more value to clubs. But realistically, the signing of Luongo’s 12-year contract and subsequent attempts to move it is one of the great examples of goaltender mismanagement in the NHL. It’s only a shade below the Philadelphia Flyers moving Jeff Carter and Mike Richards to create space for Ilya Bryzgalov. Luongo is on a good cap hit and given how hard it is to move the contract, could have more value to the club than he’ll bring back in a trade.
But the Canucks would prefer to keep Cory Schneider anyway, superior return be damned. This is the gamble the Canucks are making.
Photo Uncredited via Province.com
Like I said above – the Canucks are betting that Cory Schneider and the assets you receive for Roberto Luongo, and whatever you spend with the extra 1.33M in salary cap space you save, are superior to Roberto Luongo, and whatever assets you receive for Cory Schneider.
It’s partly complicated because there hasn’t been a market established for either goaltender. At one point, it looked like it would take a roster player and an “A” prospect to get Luongo out of Vancouver. Now the discussion is centreing around Tyler Bozak, a player who is a roster player by virtue of organizational mismanagement and at 27, not a prospect at all.
When Mike Gillis held onto Luongo through the draft and into this season, part of the bet was gambling that pieced together goaltender tandems in Chicago, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Florida would fail miserably and put some pressure on those organizations to pick up the phone. Unfortunately for Gillis, Ray Emery and Corey Crawford for the Blackhawks and James Reimer with Ben Scrivens in Toronto have been excellent goaltenders for their teams this season. Tampa has still struggled despite an improved defence and that organization has a lot of housekeeping to do and decisions to make, but those will likely wait until the offseason. Jakob Markstrom has also struggled between the Panthers pipes, but ultimately there aren’t enough struggling goalies in the NHL to create a good marketplace to trade a goalie under a long, long contract.
Photo Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America
In the end, this bold move is less about improving the team and gambling on the continuation of the steady goaltending the Canucks have had since 2007, minus seven or eight playoff starts (although in fairness, if either of his disasterous starts this season against Detroit had happened between April or June, it would be talked about a lot more this season in regards to Luongo’s mental ability to succeed in big games).
Ultimately, Luongo’s overall .919 save percentage in Vancouver is not too far removed from his playoff save percentage of .916. But there’s still a perception that Luongo is a goaltender who has “yet to win the big one”, something that contributed in part to his fall in Vancouver.
Despite being the team’s first ever true “franchise goalie” the perception of Luongo remains polarized, thanks in part to the drafting of Schneider a full two years before the original Bertuzzi-for-Luongo trade even happened. Luongo was the franchise for two seasons after the deal before Mike Gillis came in and had the strange notion to surround the Sedin twins with scoring forwards. Schneider, however, is homegrown. His career has been followed by Canuck fans through his days in the World Juniors, through to the Manitoba Moose, and then with the Canucks as a rookie backup who eventually took control of the “starting goalie” job during Game Three of the series against the Los Angeles Kings.
Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick
I’ll let you know in six years. To this point no “move” has been made, but Schneider after some growing pains has adjusted to his role as an everyday goaltender, looking absolutely unflappable over the last six games. This is a “boom” period that followed a “bust” period for Schneider early in the season. The Canucks’ goaltending tandem as a unit ranks just 12th in the NHL, behind, get this: Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Carolina and San Jose, among many other teams that do have a reputable goalie or two.
So far the percentages have gone against the Canucks goalies this year. The Canucks are about two centremen short of a real good NHL roster and the success or failure of this bet could hinge on whether the team is able to pick up a stop-gap option to slide in at 2C this playoff run, and possibly a longer term option at 3C.
In the meantime Mike Gillis’ has chosen to forgo a superior return for Cory Schneider in order to hold onto the younger goaltender – who the Canucks obviously think could be better than Luongo is or has been. He’s managed the trade with extreme patience and drawn criticism for his handling of the situation (even within this article). The patience MIke Gillis has shown may not seem particularly “bold” at first blush, but make no mistake, this is one of the ballsiest moves of his tenure. It may blow up in his face, but that won’t have made this gamble any less audacious.