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Canucks summer options with Luongo

4/19/2012

It was the kind of save that changes the course of a game. And if the Vancouver Canucks can pull off a miraculous comeback, a series.

With 14:37 left in the third period of Wednesday night's game between the Kings and Canucks, Dustin Brown skated to center ice for a penalty shot. Until this point, he'd been dominant for the Kings, who were looking to clinch a four-game sweep at home.

Brown already had four goals in four playoff games and two of them came shorthanded. People still point to his hit on Henrik Sedin earlier in the series as the kind of clean, physical momentum-changer that hockey needs, contrasting it against the Raffi Torres ugliness.

A goal on the penalty shot, during the Kings' penalty kill no less, would have fit the narrative of this series perfectly.

But Cory Schneider was waiting. He aggressively came out to play Brown, didn't bite enough on Brown's first fake and got enough of a push to stop Brown's shot. It was a game saver, the most important save of many for Schneider in this game.

The Canucks won 3-1, avoiding the sweep. It was Schneider's second consecutive start in the series and it was his second consecutive strong start. He finished with 43 saves on 44 shots, putting his postseason record at 1-1, with a 1.01 goals-against average and .969 save percentage. The man he replaced, Roberto Luongo, is 0-2 with a 3.59 goals-against and .891 save percentage in the playoffs.

The biggest thing for Schneider was his comfort level on the road. Last year during the finals, if Luongo had been even average in Boston, the Canucks probably would have won the Stanley Cup. In this road game, Schneider was especially strong early. The Kings outshot the Canucks 31-16 in the first two periods, scoring just once. When the Canucks finally got going, their goalie had played well enough to keep them in the game.

"That's what a goalie is there for, especially on the road," Schneider told reporters afterward. "It's a first step we had to have and we can worry about the next one."

If he keeps this up, it's almost impossible to trade him during the offseason. It probably is already. He's a well-liked player in the dressing room, and the Canucks want to play for him.

"[Schneider] really is a popular guy," one NHL source said. "Not that [Luongo] isn't. He's a different kind of guy."

Now, the Canucks must draw up a plan that includes keeping Schneider and moving Luongo. It's not an easy proposition.

In September 2009, Luongo signed a 12-year contract that extends through the 2021-22 season. It comes with an average salary cap hit of $5.33 million per season. The big payday came last season when Luongo earned $10 million of the $64 million. From then until 2017-18 he's paid $6.7 million per season before the contract tails off in the final four seasons.

The kicker? It comes with a no-trade clause. Not that it needs it.

I checked with a couple of NHL general managers to see if Luongo's contract is moveable. One laughed. The other was a little more diplomatic.

"No," he answered. "Unless the trading team was allowed to subsidize the deal."

So what are the Canucks' options with Luongo this summer?

1. Pray for an amnesty clause: The current collective bargaining agreement expires in September, and it's possible the new deal could include a buyout period in which teams can get out of some of these crazy, long-term deals they've saddled themselves with over the past couple seasons. One source reiterated on Wednesday that an amnesty clause remains unlikely for the next CBA, although negotiations haven't started yet between the NHL Players' Association and the league, so it's hard to predict with certainty what will emerge.

Luongo would immediately become one of the leading candidates for amnesty if that becomes an option. According to CapGeek.com's buyout calculator, if the Canucks were to buy out his deal this June according to the current rules, they'd have salary cap ramifications until 2031-32. Or until Luongo is 53 years old.

2. Trade him: This is a tough one. Not only does Luongo have control of the situation with his no-trade clause, his contract makes him all but untradeable. "There's a limited amount of teams," an NHL source said. "A very limited amount of teams."

So limited, in fact, that one franchise keeps coming up repeatedly: the Tampa Bay Lightning. GM Steve Yzerman won a gold medal with Luongo during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and will be shopping heavily for goaltending this summer. If Schneider suddenly isn't available, Yzerman has to decide if he'd rather take a chance on an unproven young goalie such as Jonathan Bernier or Anders Lindback or roll the dice with Luongo.

Vincent Lecavalier's name has come up in the past as a player who could be shipped the other way, but he has a no-trade clause, too, and has shown no inclination to waive it. Luongo still spends offseason time in Florida and met his wife when he frequented his future father-in-law's trattoria in Coral Springs, Fla., while with the Panthers. The Panthers have a goalie on the way in Jacob Markstrom, which makes the Lightning the best Florida option for Luongo.

The Maple Leafs also need a goalie, but it's hard to imagine Brian Burke eager to bail out the Canucks and he has shown a disdain in the past for the kind of long-term, cap-circumventing contract Luongo signed with Vancouver. Plus, if you're Luongo, it'd take some convincing to agree to a trade to Toronto. "Why would he want to go from one fishbowl to another?" one source said.

3. Keep him: This might be the toughest sell, because at some point Luongo is going to get tired of being the scapegoat in Vancouver. He's a proud guy who won't be eager to take on a diminished role for the Canucks. "I would think that Luongo is going to be very upset over this," a source said.

He may be just as eager to leave as the fans in Vancouver are to see him moved. Schneider is a restricted free agent, so he's due for a serious raise. Keeping Luongo would make Vancouver susceptible to an offer sheet, and it's possible the cap actually decreases next season depending on how CBA negotiations shake out. It almost forces the Canucks to consider arbitration like the Predators did with Shea Weber.

It's hard to imagine a scenario in which both goalies are on the opening night roster, but if Luongo can't be moved it's become increasingly hard to imagine the Canucks dealing Schneider based on his performance. Schneider is going to be a star -- he has the makeup and the skill level. It would be a disaster for the Canucks if that stardom were to blossom elsewhere.

"It's amazing," a source said. "I don't know how it's going to unfold."