Schneider-Luongo debate rages in Vancouver, but not in Canucks room
The debate hit the sports pages in Vancouver the morning after Cory Schneider started his first elimination playoff game ahead of Roberto Luongo.
It was burning up sports talk radio before then even, with some picking landing spots for Luongo and the decade left on his 12-year, $64-million contract long before Schneider turned in 43-saves in Game 4 to prolong the Canucks’ season.
It’s hardly a surprise given the polarizing figure Luongo has become in Vancouver, a love-him or hate-him split with little middle ground for reason. At the end of the day – and a lot of debate – it isn’t about whether Luongo is good. It is about the chance Schneider, seven years younger and set to become a restricted free agent, could be better.
InGoal Magazine senior writer Kevin Woodley has been in the middle of the Luongo drama since Day One in Vancouver, where he has covered the Canucks for the last 12 seasons, first with the Associated Press and now for NHL.com. His recent NHL.com stories on the goaltending situation in this Canucks-Kings series include:
- An attempt to find some balance in the questions about Luongo’s future in Vancouver, including an assessment of some of Schneider’s built-in physiological advantages
- Another look at how well Luongo has handled this hot-button topic in a hockey-obsessed city
- And the way Schneider has been groomed all season for this opportunity by a team that gave him more hard starts and split the starts down the stretch.
InGoal has more of his thoughts on the Luongo-Schneider dynamic here:
There is rarely any grey area when it comes to Luongo. Supporters point to Luongo’s franchise records for wins and shutouts. Critics discount the gold medal at the 2010 Olympics as a product of the team, dismiss backstopping the Canucks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final – and pitching two 1-0 shutout wins in it – and point instead to the meltdowns in Boston.
Detractors point only to an .891 save percentage in the first two games of these playoffs and declare them another postseason letdown. Boosters say that fails to recognize Luongo was the Canucks’ best player in Game 1 and the only reason it was tied in the third period, or that his .951 save percentage at even strength trailed only three other goalies – and Schneider is one of them.
Some call his contract un-tradeable, pointing to both the playoffs and annual struggles in October without recognizing that in the last two seasons they were in part a product of significant style changes implemented by Canucks’ goaltending coach Roland Melanson, or that Luongo’s save percentage since getting comfortable with the changes as the calendar turned to November is .925, which is just slightly better that Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.
They point to his puck handling as a weakness, failing to see the work that went in this season to change that, with Luongo moving the puck precisely and decisively as the season wore on.
They cite conversations with one or two unidentified general manager that wouldn’t touch Luongo’s contract, when all it takes is one that will.
Luongo’s deal, which still has 10 years left on it, comes with a salary cap hit of $5.33 million, which ranked eighth among goalies this season, and is less than the Chicago Blackhawks are currently paying Cristobal Huet to play in Switzerland. The Canucks have already paid the 33-year-old more than $16 million in actual salary, with $10 million last season, but there remains six more seasons at just $6.7 million before the actual payouts drop off significantly. So the bigger issue is term.
There is no out-clause (they don’t exist in the current CBA), but there are two trade windows. The first is Luongo’s option after the 2013-14 season, with the goalie able to submit a list of five teams he’d accept a trade to. If he doesn’t, the team can request a five-team list after the 2017-18 season – six years from now – and try to facilitate a trade.
All of that is too far away for Schneider, who will be a restricted free agent this summer and in need of a raise from $900,000 (though with arbitration rights it’s possible, depending on the next CBA and salary cap, the Canucks could keep both for at least another season). For now none of the trade talk matters if Luongo won’t waive his no-trade clause sooner – or if the Canucks won’t even ask.
As for potential destinations, there is already talk of Toronto, with assistant General Manager Dave Nonis the one who brought Luongo to the Canucks, and goalie coach Francois Allaire has worked with Luongo since he was a teenager – and Luongo told InGoal they worked together again last summer after a couple off, in part because Allaire bought a summer place in Florida.
Speaking of Florida, Luongo’s links to the Sunshine State include a return every summer to the home he built there before being traded away by the Panthers – a deal he was disappointed about at the time – and ties through his wife, who he met there, and her family, which still runs a restaurant there. Might that be close enough to Tampa Bay, where GM Steve Yzerman has a hole in goal and a gold medal win with Luongo, but also came from a Detroit organization that doesn’t believe in paying big in goal? No one, outside of Yzerman and Luongo know, just as no one that hasn’t talked to all 29 teams knows if Luongo’s deal is moveable.
As for ability, Luongo has his disadvantages in an NHL game where mobility is becoming increasingly dynamic. As written in the above NHL.com piece comparing his physical tools to Schneider, and documented by InGoal before, he is never going to be a great skater with size-15 feet. His narrow butterfly and lack of comparative hip flexibility means tight seals down low and on jam plays off the post are more difficult, and lateral recoveries from the knees are always going to take a little longer than Schneider.
Yet he’s managed two carve a potential Hall of Fame career – think of it as the anti Chris Osgood argument – with 339 regular season wins and 60 shutouts that both rank top-20 all time and second only to Martin Brodeur on the active list (despite starting his career with the Islanders and Panthers). Luongo has never stopped working to get better, embracing Melanson’s alterations in where he plays two years ago, and how he plays this season, moving his glove hands up and out to both improve his ability to make reactive saves and his lateral mobility, as explained in detail in the February edition of InGoal Magazine.
Luongo has, however, gone outside Melanson’s old insistence that his goalies always have blue ice in front of their toes. He has played at the top of – and sometimes above – the crease more often as this season went on. That may simply be Melanson adjusting based on Luongo’s preferences – he lost a similar initial depth battle, and his job, with Carey Price in Montreal. And even though Luongo was upset enough to think about a trade right after the Canucks fired his long-time goalie coach, Ian Clark, one year into his deal, he has a good working relationship with Melanson. That said, Schneider has stayed more within the 3/4 depth Melanson traditionally prefers, a difference that could affect who stays and who goes in the organization’s eyes.
Luongo has also improved how he handles a media spotlight that shines almost as brightly – and perhaps more bitterly at times – as Toronto’s, overcoming the organization’s ill-advised experiment to make him an emotional, heart-on-the-sleeves goaltender its team captain, and learning from last year’s admittedly ill-advised comments about Boston counterpart Tim Thomas during the Cup Final. He has handled Schneider’s ascension with class, praising his partner for his work ethic and obvious talent, saying all the right things when Schneider started seven straight in November, then reclaiming the No.1 job with one of his best stretches as a Canuck from mid-November through early March, when both goalies singlehandedly won games behind an often complacent team.
Luongo has become friends with Schneider and praised him as a can’t miss future star in the NHL. It’s hard to argue. There will be ups and downs, especially once Schneider becomes entrenched as a No.1, in Vancouver or elsewhere, and opponents start to develop a more thorough book on his tendencies. They call it a sophomore slump for a reason, and it can be more profound for goalies after their first taste of starting – just ask Corey Crawford in Chicago. But Schneider’s more neutral game should make him less exposed to analysis, and everything about his mental makeup supports Luongo’s firm belief his playing partner has a bright future.
The problem is that time may be now. And that’s an issue that will have to be addressed.