May 02, 2012

Schneider Changes Vancouver Long-Term

We have our best indication yet that Roberto Luongo is done in Vancouver, and this time in came straight from the horse’s mouth.

Luongo told the media last week that he would waive his no-trade clause if he was asked to by the Canucks management. He said he did not want to get in the way of what is best for the team, even if that means Cory Schneider taking over as the number one goaltender.

There has long been speculation that Luongo would ditched in favour of the younger Schneider, but it usually came from the same people spinning the Raymond-for-Nash rumours at the local bar. There was never any plausible reason to believe the Canucks would deal their star goalie.

Until the Kings series.

This year’s quarterfinal matchup against Los Angeles was nothing short of a disaster, the only bright spot being Cory Schneider, who took the net from Luongo in Game 3 and kept in for the rest of the series. That’s when talk really heated up.

Writer Jason Botchford became the latest to jump on the trade-Luongo wagon after Schneider earned back-to-back starts in Games 3 and 4. He wrote two days straight that this was a sign that the organization was moving Schneider into their long term plans.

In case you are unfamiliar with “Botch,” he is a sports reporter for The Province newspaper in Vancouver. He is one of the most respected hockey personalities in British Columbia, making frequent appearances on TSN to talk Canucks. It was one thing to have the local barber preaching this madness, reading it from Jason Botchford gave the story a shot of credibility.

In the following days, as Schneider continued his spectacular play, even Darren Dreger and Bob McKenzie were discussing the scenario on the TSN Panel. Speculating on where Luongo would go, and for how much, on national television, this armchair GM’s fantasy was actually taking shape in front of our eyes.

But even these brilliant minds could not answer the burning question: how are the Canucks going to get out of Luongo's contract? Fans were left to wonder about it until, of course, Luongo himself revealed that his no-trade clause will not be an issue.

With all this drama around Louie's rumoured departure, it is hard to imagine Gillis wanting to keep him around another year. Schneider says he deserves to start, Luongo is willing to make way, and Gillis gave the ambiguous "I'm not sure" when questioned about his goalie situation for next year. The fuse is already lit. It has to be assumed that Schneider will be Vancouver's number one in 2012/13.

That simple proposition raises all sorts of new concerns over the direction this team is headed. At present, there is not much separating the two 'keepers skill-wise, and after a suitable raise Schneider's salary cap hit will closer resemble Luongo's as well.

The real divide is the age gap. Luongo is 33, Schneider is 26. That's seven years of development for Cory. It is well documented that he is capable of turning into a world-beater in those seven years, while Luongo's play will be deteriorating. Choosing Schneider would clearly be a decision to get younger.

It raises an interesting point: if Vancouver wants to get younger in goal, are they going to do the same with the rest of the team? Schneider is likely a few years away from his prime, and he could remain a top-notch netminder until his mid-thirties, a decade from now. Do the Canucks want to make sure they are competitive during those years?

In just five years, Ryan Kesler will be 32 years old, while the Sedin twins will be 36. Not exactly elderly, but older than you would like the core of your team to be.

If you think you can see where this is going, not to worry; this is not one of those crazy, blow-everything-up-and-rebuild theories. Vancouver is still a strong contender for the Stanley Cup in the short-term; Cory Schneider in goal certainly does not hurt those chances. To squander such an opportunity would be nothing short of insane.

Having said that, what Schneider does do is lengthen Vancouver's Cup window. A strong goaltender can put even the sorriest rosters in the post-season. If the Canucks can maintain a talent level close to what they have today, they could wind up becoming perennial contenders.

Easier said than done right? Granted, it would not be a gimmie, but it is not as far a stretch as it first seems. The Canucks’ system is not bursting with superstars-to-be, but it is not as barren as most people would assume.

Chris Tanev jumps to mind as the strongest prospect Vancouver has, and he is certainly one of the most NHL-ready. For the last couple years he has made appearances on the Big Club showcasing his skating ability, defensive awareness, and coolness under pressure. He is a couple years away from being a solid NHL defenseman, but the Canucks can afford to be patient with him, which is the best possible situation for any raw talent.

Waiting in the wings are blueliners Kevin Connauton and Yann Sauve, who appear set to crack the lineup in the next couple years. Most evident though is the hole in the roster where Luc Bourdon should be, in small part because he would have been a terrific hockey player.

Offensively Jordan Schroeder, Nicklas Jensen, and Anton Rodin are all possible top-six guys, although they are a little bit further back in their development. Taking nothing away from these players, however, it is hard not to notice the absence of Cody Hodgson, who was dealt at the deadline, in this mix.

Since that trade there has been steady uproar of emotion, most of it questioning how Gillis could possibly let go of one of the most promising young stars in the game. Some of those questions have been answered by Gillis’ recent revelations of Hodgson’s “issues” in the recent media day. The kid Vancouver got back from Buffalo, Zack Kassian, should start to answer the rest of the critics very shortly.

Kassian is as elite a power forward prospect as there is. He undoubtedly has top-six stuff, and has drawn the lofty comparison to Milan Lucic. Still, most of British Columbia had never heard of him before, and his first couple months with the Canucks have done little to comfort the Vancouver faithful.

Before overreacting, remember that Kassian has managed to crack a very talented roster at the tender age of 21. He has struggled to make a consistent impact, but has shown flashes to suggest that he could be a very special player.

Compare that to Hodgson a year ago, who was trying to crack the roster at 21, struggling to make a consistent impact, but showing flashes to suggest he could be a very special player. Do you see where this is going?

When these two youngsters were swapped, fans expected Kassian to play at the level Hodgson had been. The expectations were simply unreasonable, so predictably there was disappointment when he could not meet them. We just need to be patient, Kassian will pay dividends in the near future, and, short of goalies, there is nothing more impactful than a massive, gritty forward who can put the puck in the net.

Even the forgotten piece of the trade, Marc-Andre Gragnani, could add some scoring punch from the back end if he lives up to the hype. Put it all together, and, while it isn’t Shangri-La, the farm system is set to provide reinforcements to the Show in the not-so-distant future.

They will be added to a group still in their early thirties that includes Ryan Kesler, Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis, David Booth, and Chris Higgins. Not bad, but without the production from the Sedin twins, the Canucks will need find some more top-line scoring. It is too late to draft that kind help, so Vancouver will likely have to look to bring in players from elsewhere.

How will they do that? Have a look at the contracts that will expire in the next five years. Daniel, Henrik, Kesler, Bieksa, Hamhuis, Ballard. It other words, $30.5 million in salary. Every single one of these guys will take a pay cut when if they resign, due to either age or being Keith Ballard. That equals a lot of cap room.

In addition to that, paying Schneider instead of Luongo will likely cut costs at least in the short term, and it all comes full-circle. All this financial freedom would allow the Canucks to dip into free agency or take on salary in a trade if necessary. If production up front becomes an issue, the means will be there to fix it.

Trading Luongo could also be very useful to the cause, if Gillis can get the right kind of return. The rumours are Vancouver can expect a mid-first-round draft pick or an average prospect in a deal, potentially more or less, depending if Gillis can turn negotiations into a bidding war. If the front office plays its cards right, Louie could bring back a couple more youngsters to the depth chart.

That means avoiding the Luongo-for-Lecavalier type move (as if that were possible). More realistically, adding a Ryan Malone would certainly help the team in the next couple years, but if Vancouver is serious about contending year-in-year-out, they need to get younger.

That means no betting the farm on the next couple seasons. Would you rather have two years with 5-to-1 odds of a Cup, or ten years at 10-to-1? Cory Schneider between the pipes makes the latter a legitimate threat. If the Canucks have an opportunity to take a step back today and reap the rewards tomorrow, they would be fools not to take it.

1 comment:

  1. Cool read.. Real comprehensive summary of the Canucks' current state. After the goaltending drama dragged on for so long these past couple of years, you're right.. it's crazy how quickly the situation has seemingly chrystalized to put Schneider in the forefront.