Canucks' Lu-dicrous Management

Three years ago Roberto Luongo was the $64 million future. Now he's chopped goat liver?

By Steve Burgess 27 Apr 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about the failure of the Canucks to win the Stanley Cup every year about this time.

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Luongo was paid big to be a top NHL goaltender. Which he is.

Oh well. Time to find a purpose in life. I hate when that happens. But as of this week we devoted followers of the Vancouver Canucks are free to frolic amid the cherry blossoms and embark on those painful journeys of inner discovery we've been putting off so long. Thanks to Coldplay the Canucks were granted an extra day. Thanks to cold players they are gone in the first round, losers to the LA Kings. June came early for Alain Vigneault's squad this year. We did get a final laugh when Kevin Bieksa impersonated Ryan Kesler for a Fox Sports reporter. Too bad nobody was laughing at whoever was impersonating Alex Edler. Nobody, except perhaps the bean counters at the VPD and the security staff at London Drugs.

It can be argued that the traditional Canadian hockey year has not three parts but four: pre-season, regular season, playoffs, and autopsy. Vancouver's 2012 forensic exam begins only five games after Toronto's. There are the expected calls for GM Mike Gillis to deal with coach Alain Vigneault as King Joffrey dealt with Ned Stark -- or more appropriately, as Duncan Keith dealt with Daniel Sedin. But Gillis dismissed such grumbling at his Tuesday press conference, and rightly so. Human sacrifice didn't save the Aztecs and the NHL version is usually just as futile.

The real story of the post season is in net. Vancouver gets goalie controversies like it gets precipitation. But this one is different -- too much quality rather than the usual shortage. Just because the Doobie Brothers had two drummers doesn't mean everybody can do it. For the Canucks, two star goalies represent an embarrassment of riches. In the case of Roberto Luongo's riches the embarrassment lies with the Canucks head office.

The Luongo-Corey Schneider story is a fascinating and complex study in modern NHL management, as well as a breathtaking example at how quickly fortunes can change in pro sports. Luongo arrived in the summer of 2006 as the future. His 2009 contract extension was for 12 years and $64 million, working out to an annual salary cap hit of $5.33 million. That's how you nail down the future.

Now here we are in FUTURE YEAR 2012. Flying cars crisscross the skies, human disease is a distant memory, while space voyagers battle monstrous aliens in galactic mining colonies. And the Vancouver Canucks are trying to find someone who'll pay about $50 million for a 1976 Vauxhall.

Goat on a changed landscape

It's not Luongo's fault. He has been, by and large, a great goalie. He's now a great goalie with a lot of miles and a massive price tag. (Don Cherry's Twitter feed @CoachesCornerCBC coined a perfect description for a departing Luongo, referring to him as an "escape goat." Whoever wrote that tweet is either Don Cherry or a genius.)

The Luongo deal is the hockey equivalent of the sub-prime mortgage crisis -- an example of unbridled enthusiasm and denial of risk that led to ruinous contractual burdens when circumstances changed.

Those changed circumstances have red hair and a Massachusetts driver's license. As Gillis said at his year-end presser, the emergence of Cory Schneider as a bona fide star "changed the landscape." In the latter part of the Canucks season a number of local observers suggested that Luongo is just a victim of the usual hair-on-fire hysteria Vancouver fans so often display at every setback. While there's some truth in that -- Luongo has rarely looked like anything other than a premier NHL goalie -- I stand with those who say Schneider is not just younger and cheaper, but better. Temperament is as important for goaltenders as it is for tightrope walkers. Schneider is the steadier dude.

As a restricted free agent his price is about to rise significantly. But Luongo's many gifts to the Canucks include his cautionary example -- the team is not going to make the mistake of giving Schneider F-35 money.

Listing to one side?

It won't be easy to unload the Luongo contract. Should the Canucks succeed in making a trade they'll be lucky to get the rights to Bill Barilko. In fact it's being rumoured that Bill's old team, the Leafs, would be an acceptable destination for Luongo. GM Mike Gillis has denied rumours that Luongo has supplied a list. But the Leafs would certainly offer Luongo a comforting familiarity -- his former goalie coach Francoise Allaire, blue uniforms, long summers, and the kind of fans who would be considered scary at a prison boxing match. It makes sense for both teams -- unless Toronto tries to give Vancouver some players in return. Leafs? No thanks -- trying to quit.

But the Canucks will get salary cap space. And they'll be left with one of the game's best young goalies, probably backed up by the promising and even younger Eddie Lack.

Other moves may be in the offing, but a complete shakeup is highly unlikely. The Canucks are still a talented team. True, their greatest talent may be for breaking our poor hearts. But like Job or Poland, we are used to suffering. For now we must take comfort where we can. We delight in the knowledge that the Phoenix Coyotes have effectively suspended Duncan Keith for the remainder of the playoffs -- and that, with the defeat of the Boston Bruins, goaltender Tim "Tea Party" Thomas will be reduced to playing street hockey games with Ted Nugent.

Enjoy those cherry blossoms, Tim.  [Tyee]

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