Facing elimination at the hands of the upstart Los Angeles Kings, the Vancouver Canucks’ back-up goaltender, Cory Schneider, turned in a command performance by stopping 43 of the 44 shots he faced to pick up a 3-1 win. In making his second strong start in the playoffs (Game 3 saw him stop 19 of 20 in a 1-0 loss) it appears as if he has ascended to the number one spot in net for the Western Conference‘s top-seeded team. He has also thrown the future of Roberto Luongo into doubt.
Much like last season, when Luongo’s shaky playoff performance led to Schneider making seven appearances, speculation is blossoming that the veteran, all-star goaltender and his long-term contract will be traded in the off-season. As usual, once the trade rumors start, the Tampa Bay Lightning come up as a possible trade partner. The latest writer to do so is Sun Media’s Randy Sportak whose recent article implies that the Canucks have anointed Schneider as their once and future goaltender.
Moving Luongo makes sense for the Canucks. It gives them cap room to sign the younger Schneider long term (he is a restricted free agent after this season),they remove the press-driven “goalie controversy,” and they obtain some assets in exchange for a player who is still a very good NHL goaltender. However, the question of if it makes the Lightning a better team remains. That question is much harder to answer.
There is no doubt that Luongo would be an improvement over any of the men who guarded the Lightning net this season. Dwayne Roloson’s tenure in Tampa is at an end. It was always exciting when he was in the net but the lack of consistency, not his age, will be the reason he won’t be back. Mathieu Garon will be back since he is under contract, but it appears he is best used as a back-up. Dustin Tokarski is a talented prospect, but it appears another season in the minors is looming for him.
Luongo’s ability isn’t in question, at least during the regular season, the biggest hold-up is the cost of acquiring the Montreal native. According to Capgeek, the Lightning would be on the hook for a .3 million cap hit through the 2021-22 season (by which time Luongo would be 43) and a total of .44 million in real money. That is a huge investment for a small-market team with a strict budget already carrying big salaries for Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and Victor Hedman.
Of course, one of those contracts will probably be shed in exchange for Luongo, which would help ease the financial hit, but it is still a lot of money to invest for a team that has several holes to fill. In Sportak’s article he mentioned a rumor that Luongo’s contract contains an “out clause” that allows the player or the team to get out of the contract after “a couple of years.” According to Capgeek there is no “out clause“, the only clause that the contract contains is a “trade list.” After the last game of the 2013-14 season, Luongo can submit a list of five teams that he is willing to be traded to and the team has until July 15, 2014 to make a deal happen.
If the Lightning do pull off this trade it will not help the defense in front of goal, which was just a big of a problem this season as the goaltending. Instead of pulling in a true, top-pair defensemen they would have to rely on internal players or second-tier players similar to ones already on their roster. Should Hedman be part of the package heading back to Vancouver an argument could be made that the defense would be weaker. Bringing in a world-class goalie doesn’t do any good if he has to make 35-40 saves on a nightly basis. That’s a recipe that will lead to a lot of 5-4 games.
What pieces would the Lightning have to send back to Vancouver for their embattled goaltender? Probably one of their first round picks this year or next year, a high-caliber prospect and a roster player with a significant salary-cap number. At first blush, Lecavalier would be the albatross contract going the other way, but there is no way the Canucks take the .7 million hit for a player that doesn’t really fit into their line-up. Their top two centers (Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler) are signed long-term and Lecavalier won’t be brought in to be a third-line pivot man.
Defensively, General Manager Steve Yzerman would truly live up to his “Jedi” nickname Lightning fans have adorned him with if he is able to send Mattias Ohlund and his bad knees back to Vancouver. Victor Hedman would be a strong possibility, the young defenseman will be making million a year through 2016-17 and fit nicely in the Canucks rotation. Eric Brewer’s physical game might be of interest as well.Ryan Malone (who plays a rugged game) would be a fit for the feisty Canucks, and despite his .5 million cap hit, his actual salary declines over the next two seasons making him a pretty good bargain if he stays healthy. Marty St. Louis, despite nearing his 40’s isn’t going anywhere. Nor is Stamkos. No other forward on the roster makes enough to be worth trading.
However, if the Lightning are looking at having to deal a pick and prospect for Luongo, wouldn’t they be better served using that package to pursue a younger net minder like Jonathan Bernier, Tuukka Rask or Brian Elliott? While Luongo isn’t ancient, at 33 years-old he might have reached the top of his potential. One of the younger goalies would not only be cheaper, but also have room to improve over what they’ve shown so far.
The dark cloud hanging over this entire discussion is the uncertainty regarding the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. No one knows what will emerge once the players and owners have a new agreement. The salary cap could be lower, long-term deals could be capped and possibly, and most germane to this discussion, teams could buy out one contract per team with no cap repercussions.
If that happens and Vancouver buys Luongo out, then the Lightning have a shot of signing him as a free agent to a much more agreeable deal. Tampa could be an attractive destination for him with their young, talented roster, the lack of state income taxes, proximity to his wife’s family in South Florida and relative lack of pressure from the media.
While making a blockbuster trade for the big-name goalie might drive headlines and fan interest, it doesn’t mean it is in the best interests of the team. Mr. Yzerman so far has proven to be unwilling to deal his young assets (picks and prospects) unless he is getting young, controllable talent in return. It is more likely he will go for one of the young, back-up goalies or rely on his in-house prospects of Tokarski or Jaroslav Janus and a stronger defense in front of them. He has options, hopefully he chooses the correct one.
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