Roberto Luongo has been arguably the best goalie in the NHL since the 2005 lockout, and unquestionably in its top five. The Vancouver Canucks once traded for him because they knew this, named him captain, and signed him to a 12-year contract extension.
So why are they trying to get rid of him, and why have they bungled the process so badly?
In 2011, he had a very good playoffs that ended with a very bad round, in the spotlight, hockey's biggest media stage. That was it. A couple of bad weeks is what began the process of souring on, or entertaining the idea of living without, the best goalie the franchise had ever had.
There are other factors though: One is the promising play of Cory Schneider. The other is a possible realization by Canucks brass that the contract was kind of stupid. Both of these factors affect why this awkward situation has escalated for a year and a half, still without resolution.
For more on the Canucks, head over to Nucks Misconduct.
The Case to Trade Luongo
Ironically, the 12-year extension given to Luongo was made for the same reasons the infamous 15-year contract was issued to Rick DiPietro by the New York Islanders: Salaries only go up, right? Sign a guy you want forever, and you reduce the rate and cap he'll consume as his career progresses.
Except as the worst-case scenario of DiPietro showed, there is risk in betting so many years on the health of a goalie, and the risk at this position is particularly tremendous if it blows up in your face. (Although one shouldn't assume a precipitous decline is coming anytime soon. Many of the greats have lasted well into their late 30s.) So Luongo is great, but maybe that money is better risked at another position? Especially if...
...you have a promising backup. The Canucks thought they had one in 2010-11, and the 2011-12 season did nothing to dissuade them. But there again, just like it's risky to bet on a decade of a goalie's health, it's risky to bet on a goalie's performance based on just a few incomplete seasons. Schneider has looked good, but the data is incomplete and he's unlikely to be as good as Luongo.
Still, Schneider was winning starts. After being yanked during the 2011 finals, Luongo was pulled in the 2012 playoffs during the Canucks' first-round loss to the Los Angeles Kings (the team that steamrolled everyone on their way to the Stanley Cup, it should be noted). Another blow to Luongo's future in Vancouver was struck.
By the offseason, Luongo read the writing on the wall and said he would accept a trade, the Canucks signed Schneider to a three-year, $12 million RFA extension, and Canucks GM Mike Gillis began actively seeking a trade.
There were immediately evident problems, however:
- There weren't that many teams seeking a goalie.
- The ones who were weren't keen on giving up much when there was a 12-year contract coming back the other way.
- Gillis wanted a lot in return.
- A lockout was looming, with a new CBA that many expected would include a lower salary cap and thus even less flexibility for a new team to assume Luongo's contract.
- One of the main teams Luongo was interested in, the Florida Panthers, already have a "goalie of the future" in the system.
So the Canucks gave a tough-to-trade contract to their elite goalie, then sought to trade him just as his contract began to look less and less appealing -- yet still demanded the price of an elite goalie as if there was no baggage attached.
Finally, surprise surprise, the Canucks started off this 48-game 2013 season with Luongo immediately showing his value to the team: Newly crowned starter Schneider gave up five goals on 14 shots in the season opener, and Luongo stepped in to reel off several quality starts in a row.
Goalie controversy, engage.
Deepening the drama -- as if that's what the Canucks needed -- now Schneider's agent Mike Liut has predictably weighed in. "We were hoping this would be the year" Cory played 75 percent of the games, Liut said in the middle of Luongo's hot run. He called the possibility of Luongo sticking around all season and getting most of the starts "a disaster."
On radio this week, Canucks GM Mike Gillis was quoted saying in reference to Liut's concern: "We have to win hockey games. We don't have the luxury of. . . people's feelings, as opposed to wins. We don't have that luxury."
True, and fair. But why then did the Canucks let the fan and media circus lead them down this path in the first place? Why did they let a narrative -- Luongo choked on the big stage that one time, he must be a choker -- dictate what they would do with the goalie they not too long before had committed 12 more years to? Why were they so quick to commit to a younger goalie who may very well not be as good as the one they already had locked up?
They had to know this was the risk when they first extended Luongo. They had to know that when they demanded face value in a Luongo trade, they risked having him hang around into this season. And they had to know, goalies being goalies, that Schneider might struggle at the beginning of the season, and the Canucks might have to turn to Luongo, and Schneider's agent might get mad and stir up media storms, and Canucks fans might undo their turn on Luongo.
These consequences from each move were predictable. With more foresight, they were avoidable. Now their "best-case" scenario -- or at least the one that ends the off-ice drama -- is to take less value to get rid of their starter, and rely solely on a goalie who they trusted in last year's playoffs, but couldn't trust to finish the season opener. While the most advisable route might be to hang on to both and pretend this whole thing never happened.