Roberto Luongo was supposed to be a Toronto Maple Leaf by now.
Or maybe a Washington Capital, or a Florida Panther, or a Chicago Blackhawk. Point is, he wasn't supposed to be wearing a Canucks sweater anymore, let alone wearing it while getting regular starts in net for Vancouver. Luongo had fallen out of favor with Canucks fans, and the younger Cory Schneider was all set to take over the team's starting job. Luongo himself said in a radio interview last summer that it was time to move on from Vancouver, and had begun to look back on his time with the Canucks as if that chapter of his career had closed. (From that same radio interview: "Unfortunately, I wasn't able to bring a Stanley Cup there, which was probably my biggest regret.")
And yet here we are, roughly a quarter of the way through the season, and Luongo is not only playing for the Canucks, but he's playing often, and he's playing as well as he ever has. Indeed, Luongo is enjoying his "How do you like me now?" moment -- perhaps just in time to finally say goodbye.
For a while now, trading Luongo appeared to make plenty of sense: Luongo still has enough left for teams to be interested in him, and the Canucks already have a younger, cheaper replacement on the roster in the form of Schneider. Getting rid of Luongo would mean getting rid of his pricey long-term contract -- he's currently in year three of a twelve-year, $64 million deal -- and so the hope was that a team would want a starting goalie bad enough that it would be willing to both give up a strong package of assets and take on a big contract for a goalie who will turn 34 in April. (This is to say nothing of how the trade would have satisfied the many Canucks fans on Team Schneider.) The Luongo trade buzz didn't just exist in the world of rumor and speculation: Shortly after the season began, Canucks GM Mike Gillis said that he had a potential deal in place to move Luongo, cryptically explaining that it was dependent on the other team doing something with some other player first.
But Luongo -- who has said that he'd wave his no-trade clause if asked -- remained a Canuck as the season began, and was expected to serve as a very expensive backup. Meanwhile, Schneider -- who in a symbolic changing of the guard had replaced Luongo as the starter mid-way through Vancouver's first-round playoff loss to Los Angeles last year -- got the opening night start, and was expected to get the heavier workload all season. Except that isn't quite how things have played out. Schneider has been mostly fine after a disastrous start on opening night, in which he allowed five goals to Anaheim and was pulled before the game reached its mid-way point. But Luongo has earned playing time with some terrific play: In six games, he's posted a 1.53 goals against average and a .940 save percentage, both among the best in the league. At one point, Luongo even started four straight games, but overall, the workload's been almost equally split: Schneider has six starts to Luongo's five, and each has appeared in six games, thanks to Schneider's opening night hiccup.
This division of labor has been working for Vancouver: Through eleven games, they sit atop the Northwest Division. And Luongo and Schneider have handled the situation well, preventing it from becoming a full-blown controversy. In fact, the loudest critic of all of this has been Schneider's agent, Mike Liut, who said last week that he'd been hoping his client would play 75 percent of Vancouver's games this year. Said Liut, via Sportsnet: "Is Roberto going to be [with the Canucks] all year? It's certainly looking like he's going to be or both will be there until the trade deadline." Added the agent: "What happens after that, we'll have to react to that. But my concern is in the obvious, we have a 48-game season and you've got two goalies of their stature."
But further discussion beyond the trade deadline might not be necessary. On the one hand, a strong goalie tandem could be especially useful during a compressed season like this one, and so far, it's working out for the Canucks. But the reasons Gillis had for wanting to trade Luongo before the season still hold up. In fact, if anything's changed, it's Luongo's trade value, which has only risen: He's playing like a bona fide number one goaltender, and teams desperate to land one of those might be more willing now to set aside concerns about Luongo's age or hefty contract and pull the trigger on a trade.
Gillis can be patient for now, but keep in mind that it would be nearly impossible to keep both Luongo and Schneider beyond this year because of the way the salary cap drops next season. And so Gillis could opt for the status quo for the remainder of the 2013 season, letting his goalies more or less split the playing time and trying to make a Cup run with the tandem before looking to ship Luongo in the summer. But the timing might not allow him to bring back as big a haul then. After the season, Gillis will be under more pressure to deal Luongo because of the cap, and other teams know it. Plus, Luongo is more attractive to teams with postseason hopes this year if he's moved before the deadline, because if he keeps this up, it would mean adding a hot goalie in time for the playoffs. One assumes that the only thing keeping Luongo in Vancouver this long has been Gillis's inability to find a deal that makes sense for the franchise. Perhaps now he'll be able to.
And if it happens, at least Luongo would get to end his time in Vancouver on an up note. Luongo was once an All-Star who was such a big part of the franchise that he was named its captain, despite the fact that goalies aren't allowed to wear the "C" on their sweaters. But the Canucks routinely disappointed in the playoffs, and talk began to turn to things like Luongo's psyche and whether or not he was "clutch." (I've long wondered how differently we'd talk about Luongo if he'd earned just one more victory in the 2011 Final, even though reaching that Cup Final required plenty of big wins, to say nothing of his play in the 2010 Olympics.) Eventually, Luongo lost his starting job, and was widely understood to be trade bait as many Canucks fans turned on him. But if these are indeed his final days, or weeks, or months in Vancouver, he's at least leaving those fans with some final pleasant memories.
And he's doing it while maintaining a sense of humor about the situation (and not just on his unverified Twitter account). Said the goalie to the CBC this past weekend on how fans' opinions of him have changed in a tough city for goalies: "They love their backups in Vancouver. That's why I'm a fan favorite right now."