For a while, Roberto Luongo was the starting goaltender for the Vancouver Canucks, and then at certain points one of their goaltenders.
By Tuesday afternoon as he settled down for a pre-game nap, Luongo seemed satisfied to be starting a game for the Canucks. Then he got the call from general manager Mike Gillis that a deal was worked out to send him to the Florida Panthers.
“Just when I was starting to let my guard down a little bit, what do you know, the trade happens,” Luongo told reporters in Arizona. “So that’s the way it goes.”
The way it went was a stunning end to Luongo’s roller-coaster tenure in Vancouver that included a trip to the Stanley Cup final, a demotion behind Cory Schneider, demands to trade him and finally a seat on the bench for the Heritage Classic he waited so long to start in. Florida gets the final eight seasons of Luongo’s US$64-million, 12-year contract along with ECHL forward Steve Anthony, and the Canucks get young goalie Jacob Markstrom and forward Shawn Matthias.
This trade ends almost three years of drama between Luongo and the Canucks.
“Am I happy about resolution of the situation? Yes, I am,” Gillis said on a conference call Tuesday night. “These are tough decisions. It takes a lot of courage to trade a player like Roberto Luongo and insert young players into your lineup, but we felt strongly that this was the right time frame to think that way, and this was the first opportunity to act on it.”
This was the final curtain, though trade talk surrounded Luongo for two off-seasons. On Tuesday afternoon before he caught a flight to meet his new team he reiterated that he thought his contract was “untradeable.”
Luongo said the trade caught him off-guard, and with reports swirling that the Canucks gave agent Pat Brisson permission to speak with other teams over the weekend, Gillis wasn’t sure how to answer a question about whether he actually believed the 34-year-old was stunned.
“I don’t know what to say about that,” Gillis said. “I know I woke Roberto up when I called him so maybe he was in shock and having a dream. I don’t know.”
What Luongo got out of this was his dream destination and an end to what became a nightmare of a situation with the Canucks. He tweeted a photo of a palm tree just after the trade became public, but it was no secret that he wanted to go back to the area he and his wife make their off-season home.
Gillis pointed out that it was only now after Vinny Viola purchased the Panthers that they could take on Luongo’s contract.
“It isn’t lost on anybody that he wanted to return to Florida at various points,” Gillis said. There’s a new owner in Florida now, the financial situation is now stabilized, and it brought opportunities that weren’t there before.”
Florida GM Dale Tallon spoke briefly to Luongo and described him as being “over the moon about coming back to Florida.” Tallon seemed to reflect a similar mood after acquiring a two-time gold-medal-winning goaltender for Team Canada who he considers still among the best in the NHL.
“We’re getting a great goaltender, a proven commodity,” Tallon said on a conference call. “We needed to make a statement. Luongo’s numbers are terrific. He’s already been in this community and is a very popular figure in the South Florida area. I just like what he brings to the table giving us stability and his experience and a chance for us to win.”
Luongo almost won in Vancouver, something he said would hurt for a long time. He and the Canucks led the Boston Bruins three games to two in the 2011 Stanley Cup final before dropping Games 6 and 7, when Luongo allowed six goals on a total of 29 shots.
Even during that run, Luongo split time in net with Schneider and became the younger goalie’s backup during the 2011-12 season. He made it clear he wanted to be traded, but the lockout interrupted and also caused some changes in the collective bargaining agreement that made it more difficult to get rid of his sizable contract.
“You try and do your best with the circumstances you have in front of you, and they tend to be a bit more complicated than people want to give credit to,” Gillis said. “This situation was certainly complicated by a lockout, by a changing CBA, by a variety of factors that impacted this and the circumstances.”
Gillis chose at last year’s draft to break up his goaltending tandem by trading Schneider to the New Jersey Devils for the ninth overall pick, which the Canucks then used to select London Knights centre Bo Horvat.
“It wasn’t a route we wanted to go, but if we went that route we wanted to make sure we got a top-flight young centre iceman, and we were able to accomplish that,” he said. “I think Bo Horvat’s going to play for the Vancouver Canucks for a long time, absent some sort of catastrophic injury.”
Vancouver and Florida had spoken several times about a trade, but Gillis explained that before the change in ownership the Panthers didn’t have the “wherewithal financially” to shoulder the burden of Luongo’s contract.
This time around, Tallon said he got a call from the Canucks in the early-afternoon hours Monday and the deal came together quickly like it never had before.
“We tried. Both teams didn’t feel it was a fair deal, so we just couldn’t get a deal done,” Tallon said. “Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield.”
Time will tell which team or player is in the position of the bug or the windshield. In getting out from the rest of Luongo’s contract, the Canucks agreed to retain 15 per cent of his salary and cap hit as part of the cost of doing business. Gillis said the team was “reluctant” to do that but sounded satisfied bringing the 24-year-old Markstrom and 26-year-old Matthias into the fold.
In history, these two trades will go down as Schneider and Luongo for Markstrom, Matthias and Horvat.
“I like Jacob Markstrom, I think he’s a really good young talent in goal. I like Shawn Matthias, and I really like Bo Horvat,” Gillis said. “When I look at the return, obviously you want to try and get the absolute best and most that you can get, but there are circumstances that do impact and play a role in these things. And we were impacted by things that were somewhat beyond our control.”
Much of what occurred over the past three years seemed to spiral out of control, whether it be Alain Vigneault demoting Luongo or new coach John Tortorella sitting him in favour of Eddie Lack at last weekend’s Heritage Classic. Gillis denied that Luongo’s unhappiness about that game had anything to do with this trade.
Along the way, Vancouver fans continued to serenade Luongo with chants of “Luuu,” even during the Heritage Classic as a measure of protest against Tortorella’s unpopular decision.
“All in all it was a great run, man,” Luongo told reporters in Arizona. “There was a lot of stuff that happened in between, but nothing but good things to say about the fans that were really supportive, especially towards the end—did not go unnoticed, for sure.”
Luongo played 448 regular-season and 64 playoff games for Vancouver dating to 2006, when he was traded from the Panthers with Lukas Krajicek and a sixth-round pick for forward Todd Bertuzzi, defenceman Bryan Allen and goaltender Alex Auld.
“This organization brought my game to another level,” Luongo said.
The Canucks put up a “Thank You, Lu” page on their official website, thanking him “For thrilling us with your passion on the ice. For lifting countless spirits with all that you and Gina have given to B.C. children and families in need. For being a leader and mentor to the next generation of Canucks. For so many inspiring moments and lifelong memories.”
With Florida, Luongo—at least temporarily—joins someone who he’ll forever be linked with in hockey history in Tim Thomas. The two goaltenders were involved in a famous exchange during the Cup final. Luongo criticized Thomas’s playing style before saying: “I’ve been pumping his tires ever since the series started and I haven’t heard one nice thing he had to say about me.”
Thomas later quipped he didn’t know he was supposed to praise Luongo.
On Tuesday night Tallon sounded like he didn’t know how to handle having Luongo and the 39-year-old Thomas.
“This all came up so quickly. I’m going to sit down and talk to Tim and see what he would like us to do,” he said. “It’s a business decision, and we felt we had to do it. It came out of nowhere—it came out yesterday around 3, 3:30, and here we are talking about a deal.”
From the Canucks’ perspective, this was a deal years in the making. That it happened with them just on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference made for odd timing, but Gillis tried to insist this wasn’t meant as a white flag on this season.
“It’s an indication that as a group we haven’t performed well enough and that we need to play better and we need to pick it up and get into the playoffs,” he said. “We haven’t met the expectations that we’ve had as a group—all of us. I think in the clear light of day, this is a wake-up call that we’re not performing at the level we expect.”
Gillis also brought up the pitfalls that Vancouver has encountered this year and put trading Luongo in line with a new direction for the organization. With centre Ryan Kesler reportedly wanting out and defenceman Alexander Edler rumoured to be on the market, he wouldn’t say if the Canucks were done dealing before Wednesday’s trade deadline.
“This season has been a real struggle for this hockey team for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “When you’re in this situation, you get pursued by a lot of teams. We’ve been in the opposite situation where we’ve been pursuing players at the deadline each of the last five years, trying to win Stanley Cups. …
“We’ll just continue to field calls and see what’s out there. But if we do do something else, it would be in the same vein of trying to get younger and trying to get more depth and more balance.”
Youth, depth and balance don’t tend to coincide with Cup contenders, and it seems all the more likely now that Vancouver is heading in the direction of a rebuilding effort, especially after Luongo was shipped to Florida.
“We’re committed to a plan,” Gillis said. “We want to win as many hockey games as we can in this season even though we’ve had a lot of things go sideways on us from injuries to a variety of different things this year. Our objective’s to get in the playoffs, but if there’s transactions that are available to us that allow us to diversify, get younger, get more balance, get more depth, we’re certainly going to look at them.”
Florida, on the other hand, could be trending upward with Luongo as a significant piece of the immediate future. The Panthers boast reigning Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau and No. 2 pick Aleksander Barkov up front along with some tantalizing young players like Nick Bjugstad, Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen.
Tallon knows that “talk is cheap” and hopes Luongo is part of a bigger Stanley Cup puzzle for the Panthers.
“He’s a big name down here, and it sets the tone for our franchise,” Tallon said. “He’s still one of the elite goaltenders in the league, was on the Canadian Olympic team, won a gold medal. His numbers are phenomenal. … He’s just a solid goaltender and can play a lot of games, a lot of minutes and is one of theelite goaltenders in hockey.
Luongo is 19-16-9 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 42 games this season, and he was Carey Price’s backup during Canada’s gold-medal run in Sochi.
But Luongo won’t be remembered for those numbers as much as the soap opera that clouded his final years in Vancouver. On Tuesday he brushed off the notion of any ill will toward Gillis or Canucks ownership.
“Everybody involved in this process had some tough decisions to make,” he said. “I can understand that. I understand that management had some tough choices to make, and when they were made I tried to handle them the best way I could and move forward.”
Luongo and the Panthers host the Canucks on March 16. He hadn’t given that much thought, saying only that it would be “weird” to face his old teammates so quickly.
It’s even weirder to consider that Luongo’s twisting and turning journey with the Canucks is over, just eight months after it looked like it would go on eight more years after Schneider was traded.
On Tuesday Gillis was left to answer about not just this move but the handling of the entire goaltending situation that will undoubtedly go down as part of his Canucks legacy.
“People out there want to think that we have total control over this,” Gillis said. “Would we have done some things differently? Perhaps. But we didn’t have complete control of the situation.”
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