How Canucks Ended Up Without Luongo, Schneider
From all to nothing in just over eight months?
The Vancouver Canucks goaltending situation isn’t quite that dire, thanks to the play of 26-year-old rookie Eddie Lack, whose emergence this season should not be understated in the surprising decision to trade Roberto Luongo back to Florida. But it’s hard to see the Canucks go from choosing between Luongo and Cory Schneider last summer, to having neither now and not wonder what happened.
After shocking everyone, including both goalies, by trading Schneider to the New Jersey Devils at the 2013 NHL Draft, the Canucks did it again by sending Luongo back to the Panthers in four-player trade on Tuesday. Gone are the best goalie in franchise history and his heir apparent. In their place are Lack and unproven prospect Jacob Markstrom, who was acquired from Florida along with center Shawn Matthias for Luongo and left wing Steven Anthony.
Just like that, Vancouver has gone from a proven veteran with almost 800 NHL games played, a run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, and two Olympic gold medals on his resume, to two goalies with less 70 games in the NHL, no playoff experience, and lots of question marks.
So how did the Canucks ended up without either of their star goalies from last season? There is plenty of blame to go around.
Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis needed to trade one last summer in order to get under a shrinking salary cap for this season, and while the eight years left on Luongo’s 12-year, $64-million contract limited his options, Gillis also intimated on Tuesday that Luongo’s no-trade clause further complicated matters.
“[Luongo] was able to exercise an element of control,” Gillis said. “The team he really wanted to go to that he made people aware of was Florida and they didn’t have the wherewithal. Would we have done things differently? Perhaps, but we didn’t have control of the situation.”
Gillis said the Panthers’ ability to acquire Luongo changed with new ownership in Florida since last summer. But it also seems clear the Canucks lowered their expectations in terms of the return, while at the same time agreeing to pay 15 per cent (roughly $800,000 against the salary cap) of Luongo’s contract through 2021-22. Maybe if those demands were lower earlier, Schneider would still be in Vancouver.
As for the no-trade clause, Luongo insisted throughout he was never asked to waive it. But just as Gillis and the Canucks must take blame for overestimating his trade value, Luongo and his camp must accept responsibility for trying to steer it in a specific direction early on, a failed attempt that led to Luongo firing longtime agent Gilles Lupien and hiring Pat Brisson, who reportedly brokered the Panthers deal.
So why would Vancouver trade Luongo now, especially with Schneider already gone and the team fighting for its playoff life?
Gillis insisted a controversial decision to start Lack instead of Luongo at the 2014 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic on Sunday was not a factor in the timing. Luongo also downplayed the slight that left 54,194 fans chanting his name at Lack’s expense, but his desire to get out of Vancouver never disappeared, even after Schneider did, and that ill-timed benching at BC Place exacerbated things.
“I thought my contract was un-tradeable,” Luongo told reporters in Phoenix right after the trade was announced.
Gillis was finally able to fulfill that nearly two year old request.
It leaves the Canucks with a lot of questions – and not much experience – between the pipes for the rest of the season.
Lack was signed as an undrafted free agent and played his 26th NHL game Tuesday against the Phoenix Coyotes (a 1-0 loss) after spending his first three seasons in the American Hockey League. Markstrom has a better pedigree as the 31st pick in the 2008 NHL Draft and was long considered by many to be the best goalie not in the NHL. But the 24-year-old Swede has just 11 wins and a .898 save percentage in his 43 games with the Panthers, and has spent most of this season back in the AHL, where he was goalie of the month in February.
“But Eddie’s experience rivals Cory’s from last year in a lot of ways, and Jacob’s experience rivals Cory’s when he first came up from (AHL) Winnipeg and was a backup, so relatively speaking there are some similarities, just some years removed,” Gillis said.
Neither will have Luongo as a mentor, something Gillis cited in the rapid maturation of both Schneider and Lack. But they will have goalie coach Roland Melanson, whose role in these decisions, including the Heritage Classic start for Lack, should not be underestimated.
Gillis agreed Markstrom fit with the style Melanson prefers, a deeper-in-the-crease approach that minimizes movement. It’s worked well for the 6-foot-4 Lack, and should also allow the 6-foot-6 Markstrom to use his size more efficiently and effectively than he has so far.
Praised for his patience and ability to react late to shots when he was overseas, pucks went through an overactive Markstrom too often for a goaltender of his size as he transitioned to North America. Playing the more contained style Melanson prefers is something Markstrom told InGoal he had already been working on with the Panthers. He’s about to get a crash course in it with the Canucks.
“We like his size and athleticism,” Gillis said, “We feel strongly that with continued work and structure he has a chance to be a terrific goalie. He is very good now but he certainly has the tools to work with him and advance him and we’re excited about getting him.”
Lack has also excited the Canucks in limited action this season, posting better numbers than Luongo, including a .926 save percentage to Luongo’s .917. Lack also played fewer games during a seven-game losing streak that coincided with key defensive injuries and contributed to Luongo’s numbers plummeting from a season high of .924 in late January. But there were breakdowns in Luongo’s game as well, and it’s clear in talking to Melanson he and the Canucks didn’t see the on-ice gap between the two being nearly as big as experience might indicate.
Not that their won’t be any growing pains for the Canucks goalies.
Lack will have to rely on Melanson for help in the transition from backup to starter. It’s one Schneider struggled with at times as the increased workload made it harder to find time for the position-specific work that made it easier to play well after prolonged stretches watching Luongo start. Now it’s Markstrom’s turn to benefit from that technical fine-tuning, while Lack learns to live without it.
“We feel strongly about his demeanor,” Gillis said of Lack. “As he gains experience, he is going to be a top flight goaltender.”
Lack is also familiar with Markstrom. He backed him up for a season in the Swedish Elite League, and both still work with renowned Brynas goalie coach Pekka Alcen in the offseason (so does Canucks third-stringer Joacim Eriksson, who also backed up Markstrom for a year).
The roles will be reversed in Vancouver, with Lack starting and Markstrom learning from Melanson. And if neither proves ready to take over the role vacated by Luongo and Schneider, Gillis pointed out that he has other options in goal later this summer, a list that includes Jaroslav Halak, who was discovered and mentored by Melanson in Slovakia and developed with him in Montreal.
“The free agent is not strong this summer except for the goaltending position, so if we feel we need more experience or a different look, it will be available,” Gillis said. “But we have to two really good young goalies now we think highly of.”
It’s not the goalies anyone expected to be in Vancouver a year ago, but only time will tell if the drop off is as steep as some think.