Luong Time Coming: Luongo traded to Panthers

It took two years of controversy, countless false alarms, another high-end goalie being traded, an emotional press conference at the 2013 NHL trade deadline, and a complete fanbase meltdown at BC Place this past weekend. But finally, mercifully, Roberto Luongo has been re-assigned to Vancouver’s Eastern Conference affiliate traded to the Florida Panthers.

Luongo has confirmed the deal and even tweeted out an emoticon of a palm tree. Obviously he’s excited about going home. 

Coming back to Vancouver is a package that includes Jacob Markstrom – who Eddie Lack used to backup in Brynas – and probably forward Shawn Matthias. The Vancouver Canucks are reportedly, and unsurprisingly, retaining a portion of Luongo’s salary in the transaction supposedly 15% or 800,000. You have to retain an equal proportion of both salary and cap-hit under the league’s retained salary transaction provisions so, yeah. Also the Canucks are sending Stephen Anthony to Florida. He’s not a prospect and that’s just a book keeping part of the deal.

Click past the jump for more.

First we have to touch on Luongo himself, because this is an emotional day for most Canucks fans. During the entirety of his Canucks tenure Luongo was a super-elite goaltender and was good enough every season to carry a bad team to the playoffs (which is something the Canucks only occassionally were). 

By my personal odd standard of evaluating netminders – I care about a netminder posting an elite even-strength save percentage year-after-year above all – Luongo was the best or the second best netminder in the NHL (besides Henrik Lundqvist) throughout his time as a Canuck. 

Luongo captained the Canucks for a few years, he led them to six playoff series victories and to a Stanley Cup Final. Most memorably he won a gold medal starting for Team Canada when the Olympics were hosted by Vancouver in 2010. Despite his track record, he was probably the most polarizing star in franchise history and this is a franchise that arguably retired Pavel Bure’s number a decade too late, so that’s saying something…

It’s tough to figure out what Luongo’s legacy will be in the final analysis. There’s significant baggage on the negative side of the ledger, after all, from the playoff collapses to the two-year trade saga (which Luongo reportedly played a part in exacerbating at the 2012 NHL draft). But that Luongo is unrivaled as the greatest netminder in the history of the Canucks franchise should be beyond question. 

Maybe a decade or two from now the franchise will figure out a way to honour him appropriately, if he lets them. No one would blame him if he wanted no part of it, however.

Onto the trade. The Canucks get Shawn Matthias and Jacob Markstrom who are relatively young and somewhat promising. Matthias is big and decent but not a consistent top-six forward. Markstrom has been consistent and stellar in the AHL, but his high level of performance in San Antonio hasn’t translated at the NHL level where he’s struggled enormously. Will he figure it out? Who knows.

The real benefit to the Canucks is that they get out from under Luongo’s “immovable” lifetime contract. Yeah there’s a ticking time bomb waiting for them as a result of the “Luongo rule” or cap-benefit recapture penalty, but that’s for another day (and probably another management regime) to worry about. The cap might be at 90+ million by then anyway.

All things considered the Canucks did alright with this deal, I figure. Matthias and Markstrom are decent, inexpensive, relatively young assets and the team is eating only 800,000 of Luongo’s contract. That’s certainly inconvenient but it isn’t too painful – especially with the upper limit of the salary cap expected to rise going forward. Think of it this way: it’s just the cost of one Tom Sestito! 

But that cheery summary is just us looking at the deal in a vacuum, and this saga has gone on for way to long for today’s trade to be analyzed that way.

The fact is, this was a reactive move. It was likely a move borne out of necessity and desperation after the circus that was this past weekend’s Heritage Classic. A number of forces have contributed to what went down in Vancouver’s crease over the past year: the lockout, a reigned in salary cap, the vindictive cap benefit recapture clause. Also you might add ownership’s clear and complete unwillingness to use a compliance buyout to get out from under Luongo’s deal last summer. Anyway that’s a quick list of contributing outside factors that were beyond management’s control, y’know, for the sake of fairness.

Let’s recap how we got here. You may remember that the team first began the long process of alienating Luongo by starting Cory Schneider against the Kings in April of 2012. Schneider had posted a better save percentage than Luongo had for two years running by that point, and from a hockey perspective it wasn’t an absurd move. But it led to Luongo asking out of Vancouver, and it diminished Vancouver’s leverage. Basically they’d revealed their hand on the most public of stages.

At the 2012 NHL draft and throughout that subsequent summer, the Canucks were unable to move Luongo and his massive deal. There were no takers, and anyway Luongo was steering the bus to Sunrise exclusively, which was fully within his rights as he had a no-trade clause. 

By the time the new CBA was ratified, Vancouver’s goose was cooked on this front. There was no moving Luongo in a cap-benefit recapture environment and with the salary cap’s upper limit due to recede to $64.3 illion this season. Not without retaining salary at least, (which Vancouver was unwilling to do until this past weekend apparently). They literally couldn’t give him away, as they proved at last year’s trade deadline.

At the 2013 NHL entry draft the Canucks changed course at the last moment when they finally read the writing on the wall. Unable to find a serious offer for Luongo, they traded Cory Schneider instead for the 9th overall pick. They used it to select Bo Horvat who is having a monster year for London. 

That trade, in a vacuum, was a good one. In fact one could argue – and Tyler Dellow has convincingly – that the Canucks recouped fair value for Schneider’s services. The Canucks made like Churchill’s conception of America and made the right move – they dealt the comparable goaltender with way higher trade value – but they did so only after exhausting all other options.

The problem with that deal is the same problem with the Luongo deal today: this is a management team that throughout this process has appeared to be flying by the seat of their pants, reacting rather than anticipating a shifting landscape. 

Trading Schneider for a prospect like Horvat was the right move, had it been made a year earlier. But by the time Schneider was moved, Luongo was so fully alienated that he didn’t talk to the press all summer and changed agents. This “getting back together” thing was never going to work after what Luongo had been through. It cost Vancouver not one, but two excellent NHL goaltenders.

This all brings us to this season, where Luongo was outperformed once again by his backup (for the fourth straight year), culminating in the Heritage Classic kerfuffle. I’d reiterate that I don’t think the Canucks have done that poorly with this trade, in a vacuum. But when you step back and look at the forest rather than the trees, the breadth and the extent to which this process was marked by failures to anticipate – the market, the new CBA, Luongo’s emotional state – it’s pretty galling. 

This is a tough day for Canucks fans, and a tough day for a management team that has turned what was one of the best tandems in the NHL into an unproven one. In the process they added a third-liner and a two-way ace (in the OHL). Not exactly an enviable haul, that.

But at least it’s a good day for Luongo, who gets to move on. And actually when you factor in the cathartic element, the relief of closure that this trade brings, maybe it’s a good day for the organization and its fans too in a sense. But it sure doesn’t look or feel that way at the moment.