The desolation of Roberto Luongo

By Suneil Sachdeva

Two Olympic gold medals, four National Hockey League all-star selections, one Hart trophy nomination for the league’s most valuable player, three Vezina nominations for best goalie and one game seven loss away from a Stanley Cup. This is the resume of an elite goaltender, an asset any NHL general manager would surely never throw away.

Vancouver GM Mike Gillis would apparently beg to differ.

Roberto Luongo, longtime netminder for the Vancouver Canucks, was shipped out of town at this year’s trade deadline. Judging by the return bagged by Vancouver’s front office — a 24-year-old goaltending prospect who has yet to live up to expectations and a centre who has never put up more than 24 points in six NHL seasons — thrown away is the best term to describe the move.

The Canucks have fallen far from their Stanley Cup finals appearance in 2011. In those days, they reigned as one of the best defensive teams in the league. They finished atop the standings with a league-best 54 wins and a William M. Jennings trophy which identified Luongo and teammate Cory Schneider as the best goalie tandem in the NHL. Being in the running for championships and awards must not have sat well with the Canucks brass however. They wasted little time in upending their stability in net and turning their locker room into a three-ring circus, instead of locking down their strong goaltending and gearing up for another run at the Cup.

What has transpired in Vancouver over the past three seasons is genuinely absurd. After Luongo and the Canucks fell just short of the Stanley Cup in 2011, Schneider took over as starter for the 2012 playoffs and the following season. The Canucks seemed poised to trade Luongo. Instead, a managerial roller coaster ensued. Gillis traded Schneider to New Jersey this summer and re-established Luongo as the starter, before signing goalie prospect Eddie Lack to a $2.3 million deal — after only five NHL games — and eventually promoting him to start over Luongo for this month’s outdoor spectacle, the Heritage Classic. All of this fluctuation culminated in a distraught Luongo being traded to the Florida Panthers on March 4.

While the Heritage Classic would have given Luongo his first chance to play in an outdoor game — a good opportunity for management to extend an olive branch to Luongo — the Canucks perceived Lack as their best chance to win due to a small hot streak. After Lack struggled en route to a shaky loss — failing to add to his whopping nine wins in 26 starts — Vancouver decided they had seen all they needed to, promptly putting Luongo on a plane to Florida and throwing Lack’s name up in lights.

The Luongo debacle has single-handedly removed the Canucks from the echelon of Cup contenders where they once comfortably sat, and dropped them into the same bin as the New York Islanders — the pretenders who couldn’t trade their way out of a paper bag.

This was not a case of a goaltender getting hot, leading a team far into the playoffs, but not having the resume to warrant full franchise commitment. No, Luongo had already set every significant goaltending record for the Canucks, had led the Canucks to their best regular season in franchise history and had just helped backstop Canada to an Olympic gold medal. In any other franchise, a player with such a tremendous track record would be cemented as the starter, no questions asked. The Canucks, however, refused to bend to the will of reason — or even a basic understanding of achievement and success.

Now, after the dust has finally settled, the Canucks have come out the other side worse off than before. Their once-unquestioned goaltending is now in the hands of two unproven rookies, while their core quietly leaves their prime.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly which decision by Vancouver’s front office was their worst. Was it signing Luongo to a contract until the age of 42, thus diminishing his trade value? Was it their incomprehensible pattern of demoting and promoting Luongo, while dangling him as trade bait during the summer? Waffling between telling your goaltender he is unfit to play the big games and then strong enough to lead the franchise is no way to inspire confidence.

The biggest error the Canucks made was simply losing faith in Luongo. Their trust in him slipped away in such a short period of time for seemingly no reason at all. The Canucks viewed losing the Stanley Cup finals as a failure on Luongo’s part, despite the fact that he got them there. They look like a stubborn child who couldn’t get one last tower on top of their sand castle, and so decided to knock the whole thing down.

A real contender stays the course. They identify their core, move only to add and complement it and keep coming back until they succeed. Teams like Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Pittsburgh have played a part in the last six Stanley Cup finals, and figure to play a part in many more due to this strategy. The Canucks had a chance to remain in that exceptional club, but failed to identify their strengths. By making numerous decisions that destabilized their franchise, they’ve been sent away from the big boys’ club.

The new era of Canucks goaltending has now begun. Eddie Lack allowed four goals on his first 10 shots as the new face of the team’s netminding. He followed up this performance by setting a new franchise record — for most goals allowed in one period with seven, in a colossal third-period collapse against the Islanders.

The guy who holds many of their other franchise records posted a shutout in his Panthers debut.

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