Could Lui Be Toronto-Bound?

By HOWARD BERGER

LOS ANGELES (Apr. 18) – Professional sport is volatile at the best of times and often unpredictable, as teams waver with decisions and policies. But, it appears the Vancouver Canucks made a final “break” with Roberto Luongo here today.

Facing playoff elimination in the minimum four games against the Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault has chosen to start Cory Schneider in goal ahead of Luongo for the second consecutive match. The merit of that decision is far-less intriguing than its long-term implication, as Schneider performed admirably in a 1-0 loss at Staples Center on Sunday. For Vigneault to turn away from Luongo, however, in his team’s most critical hour of the season speaks volumes about the future of Vancouver’s goaltending situation. It appears indisputable now that Canucks’ general manager Mike Gillis will trade Luongo during the off-season and anoint Schneider the team’s No. 1 goalie.

That may be easier said than done given Luongo’s contract, which has 10 seasons remaining at an annual salary of nearly $6 3/4-million. The goalie’s cap hit, however, is a manageable $5.33 million and his deal was largely front-loaded, meaning the Canucks have already doled out a substantial figure. And, if Luongo retires before termination of the contract, his salary is off the books. Still, the pursuit of a 33-year-old netminder with a lucrative pact that takes him through age 43 will be limited, as expected, with perhaps four or five teams in the running. A quick poll taken this morning at Staples Center among people that follow the Canucks suggested Tampa Bay, Florida and Toronto would likely be among the clubs making inquiries about Luongo this summer.

THE EXPRESSION ON ROBERTO LUONGO’S FACE TOWARD THE END OF VANCOUVER’S MORNING SKATE TODAY AT STAPLES CENTER PRETTY MUCH SAYS IT ALL. CORY SCHNEIDER WILL START AN ELIMINATION GAME 4 TONIGHT AGAINST THE LOS ANGELES KINGS.

Among these clubs, the Leafs figure to be most intent on possibly landing Luongo to finally settle their goaltending picture – muddled and blurry since the pre-lockout tenure of Hall-of-Famer Ed Belfour. Toronto GM Brian Burke made it clear in his post-season media briefing that upgrading between the pipes is among his top priorities before next season. Luongo, however, has a no-movement clause in his contract and will be able to narrow the already-slim catalog of potential destinations. As he approaches his mid-30s, would the Montreal native consider the Leafs a viable option, given the club’s seven-spring playoff absence and uncertain future? Or could market attrition largely take that call out of his hands?

Assuming the NHL and its players can agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement without interrupting the 2012-13 schedule, Luongo’s situation will be among the most intriguing to follow. Provisions in the new CBA could also play a determining role as the Leafs, for example, would have to unload a large contract to viably take on Luongo’s pact. Under current guidelines, teams can waive players and bury their constraining deals in the American Hockey League, as Toronto has already done with defenseman Jeff Finger and forward Colton Orr. A candidate for a move would be veteran blue-liner Mike Komisarek, who Leafs could buy out and  save on the two years and $7-million left on a contract that yields a $4.5-million cap hit.

Additionally, some observers believe that Gillis would sleep on a bed of nails before trading with Burke, as the two have long waged verbal warfare. This, however, is largely overblown in the minds of knowledgeable hockey people that insist business will always trump personal consideration. Burke, of course, won’t be able to acquire Luongo merely by agreeing to assume the goalie’s contract. Though Gillis is unlikely to find himself in a strong bargaining position on the trade front, he’ll nonetheless be looking to procure a credible package for his veteran puck-stopper. Do the Leafs have the assets required to close a deal for Luongo?

This chatter will intensify leading up to the NHL draft in Pittsburgh, June 22-23.

My images, now, of the scene in and around Staples Center this morning:

WARM TEMPERATURES HAVE PRODUCED HAZINESS AND SMOG HERE IN DOWNTOWN L.A.

CAN THE VANCOUVER CANUCKS SURVIVE ELIMINATION HERE TONIGHT?

      

THE EXTERIOR OF STAPLES CENTER HAS A “POPULATION” OF ITS OWN – WITH STATUES DEPICTING LEGENDARY FIGURES IN LOS ANGELES SPORT. WAYNE GRETZKY (TOP-LEFT) AND LAKERS STAR JERRY WEST ARE PART OF THE DISPLAY, ALONG WITH ARGUABLY THE GREATEST LAKER OF ALL: ERVIN (MAGIC) JOHNSON (ABOVE). THE LATE CHICK HEARN, WHO CALLED LAKERS GAMES FOR DECADES AND AFTER WHOM THE STREET IN FRONT OF STAPLES CENTER IS NAMED, IS IMMORTALIZED BELOW. 

VIEWS (ABOVE AND BELOW) FROM ZAMBONI GATE AT STAPLES CENTER.

THE CANUCKS MORNING SKATE IN EMPTY STAPLES CENTER WAS OPTIONAL (ABOVE).

MORE VIEWS – ABOVE AND BELOW – OF THE KINGS AND LAKERS HOME ARENA HERE IN DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES SINCE 1999. STAPLES CENTER WAS ALSO SITE OF THE MICHAEL JACKSON MEMORIAL SERVICE IN 2009.

      

STAPLES CENTER IS ADJACENT TO THE L.A. CONVENTION CENTER (ABOVE-LEFT) AND ACROSS FROM L.A. LIVE – A HUGE, SPORTS-ENTERTAINMENT COMPLEX FEATURING TWO ENORMOUS HOTELS (RITZ-CARLTON AND J-W MARRIOTT).

COVER OF RECENT KINGS’ PROGRAMS (ABOVE) FOR GAMES AT STAPLES CENTER.

CANUCKS vs. KINGS GAME 4, TONIGHT, JUST AFTER 10 O’CLOCK EDT.

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