Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why Luongo is Toronto's Answer in Goal

A stray elbow to the head turned more than James Reimer’s world upside-down last season; it sent Brian Burke’s carefully constructed plan for contending crashing to the ground. Now Burke must search desperately to find a veteran netminder capable of leading the Maple Leafs to the playoffs.

Although Ben Scrivens just finished an amazing season in the AHL, winning goaltender of the year, the disaster of 2011-12 means the Leafs cannot start training camp pinning their hopes on two unproven goalies. With public anger rising around Burke, entrusting the keys to the post-season to Reimer and Scrivens won’t happen. Burke was burned by this same gamble last season and is in no position to roll the dice again.

More importantly, failing to find a goalie was the same problem that eventually caused his firing in Vancouver. If he doesn't find a proven goalie to share the net with either Reimer or Scrivens it could ultimately be his downfall in Toronto as well.

The fact that the Leafs need an established goalie rules out Josh Harding, Anders Lindback, or Jonathan Bernier, none of whom have been starters. As for veterans, Pittsburgh pre-emptively snatched Tomas Vokoun, Calgary won't rebuild and trade Miikka Kiprusoff, and Tim Thomas planned a hockey vacation. Suddenly, the goaltending market is quite thin. Unless the Leafs drop an offer sheet on a restricted free agent like Tuukka Rask, which the Bruins are likely to match unless the offer is obscene, that leaves one solution: Roberto Luongo.

Luongo does have a no-trade clause, and some wonder whether he would want to jump from one fish bowl to an even bigger one. Although the Toronto media and fan base are relentless, there is one major difference between Toronto and Vancouver that works in Luongo's favour: Vancouver eats their goalies alive, whereas Toronto will canonize anything approaching average.

In his four years in Toronto, Curtis Joseph only once posted a top-10 save percentage. In fact, over those years Joseph's save percentage was pretty average, yet he was irreproachable in Toronto. Simply bringing up Joseph's name in Toronto is enough to make a Leafs fan misty eyed.

Over Luongo's 12-year career, he has owned a top-10 save percentage eight times, four times since the lockout. Even if he regresses with age and is simply average, he will provide the best goaltending Toronto has seen in a decade. After watching The Ghost of Ed Belfour, Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala, Jonas Gustavsson, and a concussed-out-of-his-mind James Reimer flail at pucks over the years, Luongo will look like a Jedi-powered octopus in net.

If the Leafs had Luongo in net for 55 games last season (the amount he played in Vancouver), they would have cut their goals against by about 30. That would have given them a goal differential of minus-3 on the season, which would have been good enough for seventh best in the Eastern Conference.

Of course, no conversation about Luongo is complete without discussing his ridiculous contract. He has 10 years left on his deal. That's a huge amount for a 33-year-old, but the last three years pay him less than $2 million a season, which effectively means he'll retire before those seasons. If Luongo decides to play into the twilight of that contract he's still likely to be playing at a high level, so it shouldn't be too much of a concern.

Bob McKenzie of TSN has stated that there are some who believe Luongo only wants to play four or five more years. That would put Luongo at 37 or 38 by the time he retires. That 10-year contract doesn't look as bad through that lens.

Plus, although the deal spans 10 seasons, the actual cap hit is only $5.33 million. Starting next season, that would rank as the eighth highest cap hit among goalies, unless Carey Price, Tuukka Rask, or Cory Schneider are able to land a huge deal as restricted free agents. So Luongo's cap hit puts him among the top third of goalies, and his performance since the lockout has matched this.

Luongo will likely see a decline as he ages (how severe, and when, is unknown), but as salaries across the league escalate, Luongo's deal will still match his production. Pekke Rinne will cost $7 million starting next season, and Jonathan Quick, Kari Lehtonen, Jimmy Howard, and Mike Smith are all UFAs the following year. In all likelihood Luongo's cap hit will eventually drop to the middle of the league, meaning he just needs to be average to match his contract.

When Luongo begins to decline is important, because the last "real" year of the deal is during Luongo's 39-year-old season, so any taker must be reasonably sure of Luongo's ability to be at least an average starter well into his 30s. It isn't impossible, as players like Martin Brodeur, Dwayne Roloson, Tim Thomas, and Dominik Hasek have shown, but it certainly isn't the norm.

However, Luongo has shown over his career that he is an elite goalie, so this isn't like investing heavily on a one-year wonder to save your team. The highest save percentage of any goalie who has played over 250 games is .922, a mark set by Dominik Hasek. Luongo sits fifth on that list with a .919 mark.

Even if you just look at seasons since 2006-07, the year Luongo became a member of the Vancouver Canucks, only five starting goalies have a better regular season save percentage than Luongo’s .920. Those goalies are Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Tomas Vokoun, and Tim Thomas.

But the problem with Luongo hasn’t been the regular season. His critics point to his playoff history as the reason why he isn’t a quality goalie.

However, Luongo has played more playoff games than any goalie since 2007, and his .916 save percentage is higher than both Rinne and Jimmy Howard, and only slightly lower than Lundqvist, Hasek, and J.S. Giguere. Additionally, Curtis Joseph, who was loved in Toronto primarily because of how he played in the post-season, had a .919 playoff save percentage during his time in Toronto. For some reason, Luongo isn’t held in the same regard as any of those other goalies.

Admittedly, this is because Luongo has a penchant for blowing up in big games. Chicago torched Luongo in five separate games in 2009 and 2010, which earned him the reputation as a big game flop, and allowing 8 goals in one game against the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final certainly didn't help.

But last season's Stanley Cup Final performance also included two 1-0 shutouts, and a stellar 31-save 2-1 overtime victory over the Hawks in Game 7 of the opening round, arguably a more pressure-filled game than any outside of the Final.

Plus, Luongo didn't lose the Stanley Cup for the Canucks, he was just the convenient scapegoat. The team crumbled around him, and Vancouver's three best forwards, the Sedins and Ryan Kesler, combined for two goals over the seven game series. You aren't going to win many games like that.

Likewise, the Canucks failure against the LA Kings this year was not Luongo's fault, despite being replaced by Schneider after Game 2. Luongo had a very strong first game, but was still saddled with the loss, and although he didn't perform well in Game 2, the team in front managed to only score two goals and allowed two short-handed. Alain Vigneault's decision to go with Schneider was more of a ploy to spark his team, rather than an attempt to give the Canucks a better chance to win.

Going forward the Canucks aren't replacing Luongo with a goalie who gives them a better chance to win. They are replacing Luongo because they have a goalie who is younger and cheaper and can provide the team with equal production.  Schneider did have superior stats to Luongo last season, but unless we’re witnessing the development of the greatest goalie in league history, Schneider’s save percentage will regress somewhat as he plays more games. Remember, the highest career save percentage in league history is .922.

For all the positives that Luongo can bring to a team, he isn't going to cost a lot to acquire. The Canucks don't have a ton of leverage in this situation. Luongo wants out, the team wants him out, and everybody knows it. His contract is massive, and simply taking it off the books and opening a spot for Schneider is worth a lot to the Canucks.

Most importantly, the amount of teams looking for a starting netminder will be limited to a small handful. The three teams looking most aggressively to upgrade in net will be Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Chicago. There is a possibility that Florida gets involved, but both Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen had pretty good seasons, and the Panthers have top prospect Jacob Markstrom waiting in the wings.

The fit between Chicago and Luongo isn't great, mainly because the animosity between the two teams, and Steve Yzerman has already stated that the Lightning would prefer to go after a younger goaltender. Of course, Yzerman could just be using that as a tactic to get a better deal.

Furthermore, the list of teams willing and able to absorb Luongo's contract is even smaller. If the Lightning truly aren't going to pursue Luongo—and after Dustin Tokarski posted a .944 save percentage in the AHL playoffs they may totally back out—then it leaves only Toronto.

So the Canucks, who are already dealing from a position of weakness, are only dealing with one team. Although this sounds like an ideal situation for a buyer, the Leafs have their own leverage issues. Everyone in the league knows the Leafs are desperate for a goalie and there aren't many options, so Vancouver isn't going to just give him away.

What we have is two teams that need to make this trade. Neither is in the position to make an outrageous demand. A realistic return for Luongo is a bad contract, a second-round pick, and a prospect, although not Toronto's top prospect and certainly not this year's first-round pick. So for Toronto this would look like Mike Komisarek, a second-round pick, and perhaps Joe Colborne (or some reasonably comparable player). The deal will not be Nazem Kadri and the fifth overall pick.

Vancouver fans might bristle at having to take back two more years of Mike Komisarek, but they are getting rid of 10 years of Luongo. That essentially works out to a net gain of over $44 million in cap space over 10 years, or over $28 million if Luongo retires before the bogus years of his deal.

Leafs fans might not like the idea of bringing in someone with the spotty playoff track record Luongo has, but he's almost a guarantee to get a team into the playoffs. And at this point, after what Toronto has passed off as goaltending for the last decade, there needs to be some stability. Make the playoffs first, then worry about what happens next.

This is a deal both teams need. Any personal dislike each GM has for the other will be put aside because neither team can start next season with the status quo.

Mike Gillis might publicly state the possibility that both Luongo and Schneider begin next season in Vancouver, but in reality that is about as likely as Dominik Hasek making a successful comeback as he approaches 50. For his own posturing, Brian Burke can go as far as proclaiming Hasek as his veteran netminder, but it is clear the most viable option is sitting in Vancouver.

This isn't the deal either team really wants, but it might be the only deal they have to make.


Anonymous said...

Good Read... Makes a ton of sense from both standpoints... Go Leafs...!

Anonymous said...

Tampa Bay needs to get in this and trade Ryan Malone as the big contract. Much better than a contract dump.

mrj said...

Good article, I would rather see Luongo for 2nd pick, Komisarek and an AHL D man such as Jesse Blacker. This way the Leafs are dealing from their strength, we don't have a lot of potential forwards in the system.

Matt Horner said...


I agree with you. I'd prefer to see Blacker for the reasons you suggested. I wasn't sure who the prospect would be specifically, so I said Colborne, although I think the deal can get done with someone similar in terms of long-term promise.

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