VANCOUVER – Tim Thomas will never have to buy a beer – heck he may never have to pull his wallet out – in Boston ever again. Whoever runs Boston’s Sports Hall of Fame would be well advised to induct him shortly after the Bruins touch down with the Stanley Cup. So the guy has a little trouble playing pucks off the backboards: You can bet that like the Charlestown Chiefs in Slap Shot, he’s workin’ on it.
That Thomas deserves a place among Boston hockey immortals such as Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Eddie Shore, Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione is beyond dispute. He looked spotty at times during the playoffs, but there is absolutely no doubt he was driving the bus in the final that delivered the first Stanley Cup to Boston since 1972. You think Thomas wasn’t embedded deeply into the Vancouver Canucks heads going into Game 7? If you PVR’ed the game, watch it again and check out the Canucks shot selection.
The more pressing question now concerns the guy who was taking care of the goaltending at the other end of the ice. And it must be asked. Now.
How can Roberto Luongo ever possibly play another game in Vancouver?
It wasn’t that Luongo was terrible in Game 7 because he wasn’t. But unlike Games 1, 2 and 5, he didn’t provide his team with the suffocating, lockdown, it’s-fine-guys-I’ve-got-this kind of goaltending that the Canucks desperately needed from him. He allowed three goals on 13 shots through the first two periods of the game. They were pretty good goals and Luongo couldn’t be exclusively faulted on them. But he allowed three goals on 13 shots. That’s simply not good enough regardless of how it’s spun.
And even if you forget about Game 7, he was a big reason why the Canucks threw this series away when they had a stranglehold on it. If he had even given the Canucks decent goaltending in one of their three previous losses, they’d probably still be cleaning up the streamers from Vancouver’s Stanley Cup parade.
But it wasn’t to be and it’s hard to imagine it ever will be with Luongo taking care of the goaltending duties here. Athletes are remarkably confident and resilient and Luongo has an even higher level of swagger than most of them. But it’s not a leap to suggest that what has happened over the past two weeks hasn’t shattered even his remarkably impenetrable psyche.
This goes way beyond Luongo’s comment about Thomas’s goaltending after the Canucks won in overtime in Game 5, although that didn’t help. You’d have to think that if Luongo could have grabbed those words out of the air and stuffed them back into his mouth, he would have done that. All he had to do was say one thing: “Hey guys, that came out wrong. Let me try again.” Then he would have been well advised to keep his mouth shut the rest of the series.
Perhaps Luongo has the strength of character and the desire to make things right to want to stay in Vancouver to see this through. Perhaps the Canucks have enough faith in him to want him to stay. Chances are, though, they won’t have a choice in the matter unless they get either very lucky or very creative with this situation.
That’s because Luongo has 11 years left on a contract that carries a cap hit of $5.3 million. It was a virtually untradeable deal from the time the ink on the signatures was dry. The Canucks can’t consider a buyout, since it would mean they’d be paying out a total of $40,666,671 until 2032-33. He has a no-trade clause, but not a no-movement clause. Do the Canucks try to trade him and force Luongo to comply by putting him in the minors? Probably not.
Even if they would like to trade him, would they have any takers? Likely not, although perhaps the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are saddled with an untradeable contract belonging to Vincent Lecavalier – nine years remaining with a cap hit of $7.7 million – might be interested in discussing the possibility.
What about Phoenix once their financial issues get resolved or the team moves to a market that will support a team that spends to the cap? How about Winnipeg? Perhaps the Canucks could offer Luongo along with Cody Hodgson and a first round pick to a team to help convince it to take the contract. I’m serious here. The chances of being able to make a deal like that work would be slim, but Canucks GM Mike Gillis will never know unless he tries.
And now might be the time to do just that. Bruins coach Claude Julien said before the series that the Stanley Cup final would not be decided by goaltending. He could not have been more wrong. The championship went the way it did because one guy gave his team otherworldly goaltending when it needed it most and the other faltered at the most crucial time.
Tim Thomas is the most unheralded Conn Smythe Trophy winner in the history of the game. The poor kid from Flint, Mich., who once sold apples door-to-door and whose parents hawked their wedding rings for him to go to hockey, parlayed a ton of determination and even more natural athletic ability into an NHL career, one that will basically enter the annals of immortality no matter what he does from this day forward.
Roberto Luongo still has a long time to write his story. You just wonder whether it can ever be done on Canada’s west coast.
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