VANCOUVER – The future of goaltender Roberto Luongo is one of a number of pressing issues facing the Vancouver Canucks now that the NHL and the players’ association have to come to a tentative agreement to end the lockout.
And so long as the new collective bargain agreement is approved by both the owners and the union’s membership, the veteran netminder will be expected at training camp.
“It’s become a priority for a number of other teams,” said general manager Mike Gillis on a conference call Sunday, suggesting there is strong interest in the goaltender. “So it’s become a priority for us.”
Luongo was displaced as the starter in last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs by Cory Schneider. After the Canucks were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, Luongo said he would agree to waive his no-trade clause if the team asks him to.
However, Gillis was unable to swing a deal before the lockout began. In the meantime, the Canucks signed Schneider to a new three-year, $12-million contract that begins this shortened season.
Luongo openly wondering about his future Sunday, tweeting: “So (what) do we do now?”
Pending a trade, Luongo ($5.3 million) and Schneider ($4 million) pose a $9.3 million salary cap hit to the Canucks this season. While the total is tenable, the two contracts will become more difficult to manage in the 2013-14 season, when a reduced salary cap takes effect.
Luongo’s presence could also prove to be a distraction as the Canucks try to regain the form that helped them come within a game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2011.
So there is more urgency to move Luongo, who has a 12-year, $64-million contract that runs until 2022. Presuming he is moved in the near future, the Canucks will also have to acquire a goaltender to back up Schneider, either as part of the Luongo deal or through a free-agent signing. Eddie Lack, Vancouver’s top goaltending prospect, is expected to spend the entire season in the minors with the Chicago Wolves.
The Canucks also need a second-line centre to fill in for the injured Ryan Kesler, who is recuperating from off-season shoulder surgery.
“While he will not likely be ready for the start of the season, he continues to progress,” assistant general manager Laurence Gilman said. “We anticipate full recovery.”
Gilman said he did not have an idea of how much longer Kesler will remain out. Pending Kesler’s return and a Luongo trade or free-agent signing that brings a veteran centre, the Canucks must address their lack of scoring depth in the middle. Gillis indicated the team will look within the organization for a replacement for Kesler.
“There’s multiple options that we have, including the unconventional one of moving another player to centre ice,” said Gillis.
He indicated farmhand Jordan Schroeder, Vancouver’s first-round draft choice (22nd overall) in 2009, will get serious consideration, adding the 22-year-old has been playing well with the Wolves.
Overall scoring is also an issue because Vancouver tends to rely on Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Alex Burrows and defencemen Alex Edler, who underwent off-season back surgery, and Kevin Bieksa for most of its offence. Defenceman Jason Garrison, signed as a free agent in July, should add more production, but the Canucks need more goals from their forwards.
Coach Alain Vigneault will be expecting more output from wingers David Booth, who was inconsistent after being acquired in an early-season trade from Florida, and Mason Raymond, who struggled after returning in December 2011 from a serious back injury suffered in the 2011 Stanley Cup final.
Raymond, re-signed to a one-year contract at a reduced salary, will be under increased pressure to produce if he wants to have a long-term future with the Canucks.
With $2.4 million in salary cap space, and potentially more if Luongo is traded, Gillis could also choose to sign a veteran free agent defenceman. Vancouver only has seven blue-liners with NHL experience under contract, and the club usually goes with eight.
One option could be Jim Vandermeer, who has been skating informally with Canucks players at the University of British Columbia. Vandermeer, who played for the San Jose Sharks last season, said he had contract talks with the Canucks, among other teams, before the lockout began.
Gillis said no acquisitions will be made until the new CBA is ratified.
“Until it gets ratified, we’re not talking about trades with any other teams,” he said.
The GM said his biggest concern going into a short season is injury. The shorter season increases the risk of health problems and the effect they will have on the team.
But he is confident that players are in the best shape possible. Wingers Manny Malhotra and Chris Higgins are concerned about the increased injury risk that a compressed season could bring.
Higgins said a compressed season will be a “unique experience” to which everybody will have to adjust.
“I would prefer to have a couple (of exhibition games),” he said.”I don’t like exhibitions to begin with. (But) it would be tough to pop in there and start playing (regular-season games) right away, that’s for sure, without taking a little bit of game repetition.”
It remains to be seen how quickly the Canucks can get ready for game action. Schneider (Switzerland) and wingers Raymond (Swedish second division), Jannik Hansen (Finland) and Dale Weise (Holland) were the only Canucks who played in Europe during the lockout, while eight to 10 Canucks, including the Sedin twins, remained in Vancouver and the rest were scattered at various locations.
During most informal skates at UBC, only six or seven Vancouver players were on the ice, limiting what they could do in drills. There were rarely two goaltenders present. Malhotra indicated the team will need some time to reach peak performance after the long labour dispute.
“We always say: You can ride a bike as much as you want; you can practise as much as you want; you can bag-skate as much as you want,” he said. “But there’s no substitute for actual game action.”
Notes: Gillis said front-office staff who had their work weeks reduced by 20 per cent will be brought back to full-time status as quickly as possible. The club hopes to pay tribute to fans for their loyalty on the opening night of the regular season. “We’re going to try to our hardest to give back,” he said. Gillis added the Canucks lost season ticket holders as a result of the lockout, but he declined to provide a number. … The Canucks plan to bring up winger Zack Kassian, acquired in the Cody Hodgson trade, from the minors. Chris Tanev, one of the seven defencemen with NHL experience, is also expected to be recalled. Defenceman Kevin Connauton is another candidate for promotion.