Maybe Vancouver Canucks general manager Dave Nonis should be investigated for grand theft for the trade that sent dark cloud Todd Bertuzzi to sunny Florida for Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo.
Luongo is the biggest reason the Canucks, who play Florida for the first time Sunday night since the June 23 trade, are sitting first in the NHL’s Northwest Division with a 23-18-1 record. Vancouver would be the third seed in the Western Conference if the playoffs started now.
The Panthers, who are waiting for Bertuzzi to recover from back surgery, are last in the Southwest Division (15-20-8) and only Philadelphia has a worse record in the Eastern Conference.
Luongo – who signed a US$27-million, four-year contract in Vancouver – has a 23-15-1 record, a 2.43 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. The Canucks are currently riding a six-game win streak and Luongo has allowed just seven goals in Vancouver’s last four games.
“He’s won games single-handed for us,” forward Matt Cooke said Saturday. “He’s got the capability to do that. That’s part of the reason why he’s here.”
Bertuzzi, 31, is the highest paid Panther at $5.27 million. He has played just seven games this season and has a goal and seven assists.
Without Luongo, 27, it’s hard to imagine the Canucks, who are tied with Chicago for the second-fewest goals scored in the conference with 103, would be battling for a playoff spot.
But Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said it’s unfair to say Vancouver won the trade.
Who knows what impact a healthy Bertuzzi would have had on the Panthers? In seasons when he played more than 70 games, Bertuzzi never scored fewer than 25 goals. His aggressive style also opened up the ice for his linemates.
“Their top player in the deal is Bert and he’s been hurt,” said Vigneault. “He’s an elite player. He had some great years here and helped a lot of the guys that were on this team look pretty good.
“I don’t think that’s fair to Florida to say we got the upper hand.”
Vancouver captain Markus Naslund, who hasn’t scored a goal in 17 games, may be the Canuck who misses his old linemate the most.
“Roberto has been a huge part of our success and he’s been everything we wished for,” said Naslund. “That being said, it might have been different comparing if Todd would have been healthy and had a good year.”
Luongo, who spent five years with the Panthers, said he has mixed emotions about facing his old team.
“It’s going to be nice,” he said. “You play for a team for so many years, it’s nice to see some guys on the other side.
“It would have been a bit nicer if the game had been in Florida. It’s going to be kind of funny to see that jersey on the other side.”
He shrugged over not facing Bertuzzi.
“The main thing for me right now is to get the win,” said Luongo. “It doesn’t matter to me who is in the lineup.
“Most of the time, when their big guys are out of the lineup, other guys step up to the plate and play good.”
While Luongo and Bertuzzi were the principles in the deal, three others players were involved.
Defenceman Lukas Krajicek, 23, came to Vancouver while defenceman Bryan Allen, 26, and goaltender Alex Auld, who turns 26 Sunday, were sent to Florida.
Allen, who the Canucks took fourth overall in the 1998 draft, said it will be strange to step onto the GM Place ice wearing a different uniform.
“There are different emotions, a little bit of nerves, a little bit of excitement,” he said. “We don’t always get these games with a big crowd and that emotion behind it.
“It will be exciting.”
Krajicek sounded like a player with something to prove.
“They traded me,” he said. “I want to do my best against them.”
Allen has one goal and eight assists for Florida. His minus-11 rating is the worst on the team.
Auld began the year as Florida’s No. 1 goalie but lost the job to 41-year-old Ed Belfour, who will start Sunday. Auld has a 6-11-5 record, a 3.22 goals-against average and .895 save percentage.
Krajicek has one goal and seven points for Vancouver. His minus-12 rating is the worst on the team.
It would have been interesting to see the reaction Bertuzzi would have received from the Vancouver crowd. The big forward remained a fan favourite, even after a couple of mediocre seasons and his infamous attack from behind on Steve Moore.
Allen said it’s been frustrating for Bertuzzi, who becomes a free agent in July.
“It’s been a long, trying year for him,” said Allen. “Todd is an emotional, competitive guy. It’s tough for him to just sit there and do nothing. He wants to help.”