VANCOUVER – Cory Schneider has waited much longer than a 113-day lockout for this chance.
For the first time in his pro career, the goaltender entered a Vancouver Canucks training camp as the go-to guy in goal, a role he has coveted since he entered the organization.
“It’s the culmination of my development,” the 26-year-old Schneider said Sunday. “This is where I need to be at my best. All this training—it’s about eight years now since I’ve been drafted—it’s all coming to fruition.
“Hopefully, it will all turn out the way I hope it will, and everything I’ve done to prepare for this moment will be worth it.”
Schneider displaced Roberto Luongo as Vancouver’s starter in training camp and is slotted for permanent No. 1 duty. Luongo, who said after the season that he would waive his no-trade clause, is attending camp amidst an uncertain future.
He is expected to be traded, with the Toronto Maple Leafs rumoured to be the most likely suitors.
Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault has refused to anoint a starter, but it’s clear the job is Schneider’s once Luongo’s future is determined.
Last summer, just before he was due to become a restricted free agent, Schneider signed a three-year, US$12-million contract extension.
“I’m not going to change who I am or what I do because of it,” Schneider said. “The mentality changes a little bit, but I’m just excited to play as many games as I can. Nobody likes sitting out, nobody likes sitting on the bench, but that’s been my job, and that’s what I’ve been asked to do that last few years—and I’ve done it.
“I just feel it’s time to make that next step, and I’m excited to do so.”
The Canucks chose Schneider, a Marblehead, Mass., native, in the first round (26th overall) of the 2004 NHL entry draft. But he spent three years at Boston College, another three years in the minors with Vancouver’s former top farm team in Manitoba, with occasional call-ups to the NHL, and two more seasons as Luongo’s understudy.
Last season, Schneider posted a 20-8-1 record, three shutouts, a 1.96 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in 33 regular-season games.
He feels like a much different goaltender than the one drafted as a teen.
“It’s leaps and bounds,” said Schneider of his development. “I’m sure if you showed me a videotape of back then, I wouldn’t even recognize the guy in the net. But that’s part of the process for me. I wasn’t a guy who was going to be able to step right in as an 18- or 22-year-old. Now, I’m 26, and it’s time for me to make that difference.”
Schneider is vowing not to let the starter status change him as a person, or in the way he prepares. But he admitted he has made considerable adjustments to his preparation in the years leading up to now.
“It’s much more mental,” he said. “You find out that it’s 90 per cent mental at this level. The other guy looks the same physically more or less. It’s the guys that can prepare themselves night in, night out who make the difference.
“Watching a guy like (Luongo) do it for so long, and seeing it up close, has had a good impact on me.”
The Canucks, who have finished first overall the past two seasons, are rated as the team to beat in a 48-game schedule. The Canucks hope they can adjust to their compressed schedule as a team and that will require Schneider adjusting to his new role quickly.
“You see case of … successes and failures and guys that have been thrown in right away,” he said. “Every guy is different. I’d like to think that I can adapt. … I think it’s been good that I’ve been in this organization, and everything has worked out the way it has.”
In addition to Luongo, Schneider credits Canucks goaltending coach Roland Melanson, who has adjusted his style, for putting him on the path to becoming a starting goalie.
After helping the Canucks reach the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final in 2011 and keeping their playoff hopes alive briefly last spring, Schneider wants to prove himself over a longer period.
“I’ve had short durations of success, but I’ve been training to have long periods of success,” said Schneider.
The identity of his full-time backup is one of the few questions that need to be answered as the Canucks head into the season. Once Luongo departs, the Canucks will have to get another goaltender with NHL experience, either as part of the proceeds for him or via free agency.
The Canucks are also looking to fill a temporary hole at centre on the second line until Ryan Kesler recovers from shoulder and wrist surgery. Jordan Schroeder, Vancouver’s top draft choice in 2010, and journeyman Andrew Ebbett, who have been playing for Chicago of the AHL are the most likely candidates are the most likely candidates.
General manager Mike Gillis helped improve depth on defence by signing unrestricted free agent Cam Barker on Sunday, but the Canucks are also considering blue-liners Frank Corrado, who has excelled in the OHL this season and was cut by Canada’s world junior team, as well as Kevin Connauton, who was also called up from the farm team.
Coach Alain Vigneault has indicated that he plans to go mainly with veterans, and Gillis has stated there is less room to experiment in the lockout-shortened season. But it’s clear that the coach and GM want players to battle for the few jobs available.
“To have competition in camp is always a good thing,” said Gillis.