VANCOUVER — The temperature changed a little last week for the Vancouver Canucks when they filed to arbitrate against winger Mason Raymond. The environment may be dramatically altered this week as general manager Mike Gillis tries to trade goalie Roberto Luongo.
Gillis confirmed before travelling for NHL meetings on Tuesday that he is talking to teams about his goalie.
“There are lots of teams interested,” Gillis said. “There’s a limited number of proven No. 1 goaltenders in the world. Roberto is, without a doubt, a proven No. 1 all-star goalie.”
The Canuck manager insisted there is no urgency to make a deal this weekend at the draft in Pittsburgh and Gillis said he remains comfortable with the possibility that both Luongo and Cory Schneider, who became the Canucks’ starter during April’s first-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings, will be in Vancouver next season.
Neither goalie, however, would be comfortable with that scenario and it is in no one’s interest to have two No. 1s and nearly $10 million committed to Canuck goalies when one of them will be on the bench each night.
“We’re still in the position to explore all of our options ... and I’m doing that without a timeline,” Gillis said. “I have no timetable at all. In some ways, I feel the draft in situations like this is an artificial timeline.”
Perhaps. But July 1 is a genuine, albeit soft, deadline because on that day other NHL teams can attempt to pilfer Schneider, one of the best young goalies in hockey, with predatory offers to the restricted free agent.
The re-signing of Schneider and trade of Luongo seem mutually exclusive issues but are not. The Canucks would like the certainty of a Schneider contract before trading Luongo. But Schneider, aware that the keys to the kingdom could soon be his, isn’t expected to rush into a deal until he knows what is happening with Luongo, who has 10 years and $53-million-US of salary-cap space remaining on his contract. Even as a restricted free agent, Schneider has tremendous leverage.
The unusual situation has the makings of a standoff.
The Canucks, who made a frosty, precedent-setting decision last week to try to force a pay cut upon Raymond, are expected also to file for arbitration against Schneider as a defensive move to protect their asset. But because Schneider made only $900,000 this season, the Canucks can’t do that until July 5, creating a brief free-agency window for rival teams to pitch offers at the 26-year-old. Vancouver has the right to match offers.
Is Gillis worried?
“No, we have lots of cap space,” he said.
But the Canucks could be forced to pay Schneider more by matching another team’s contract than by negotiating their own.
“You could, yeah,” Gillis said. “An offer sheet is a risky proposition.”
Gillis’s challenge is to not merely shed Luongo’s contract, which calls for $40.28 million over the next six years, but to make a trade that actually fetches the Canucks something besides another team’s bad contract. He is emphatic that there is a market for a huge contract attached to a 33-year-old goalie.
“I know there’s a market, for sure,” Gillis said. “His cap hit is $5.3 million. Marty Brodeur just got to the final [at age 40]. Goaltenders are a different animal when it comes to contract evaluation. If they’re smart enough and technically sound enough, they can play for a long, long time.
“Roberto has impressed me from the moment I met him. Regardless of how well he plays, there’s this notion that no matter how good it is, it isn’t good enough. And it’s baffling to me because I think the guy is just an outstanding player who’s an outstanding person.”
But Schneider is younger, cheaper, technically superior and could be even better than Luongo, who handled his playoff demotion with admirable professionalism and said after the season that he wouldn’t force the Canucks to keep him. That doesn’t mean he’s waiving his no-trade clause to go to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Toronto Maple Leafs remain the most logical destination for him.
Gillis must work with Luongo and agent Gilles Lupien to make a deal happen. J.P. Barry, the agent for Raymond, had hoped the Canucks might also work with his client rather than adopt a confrontational approach that seems at odds with Gillis’s commitment to making Vancouver the most player-supportive environment in the NHL.
Returning from fractured vertebrae and soft-tissue damage suffered in last June’s Stanley Cup Final loss to the Boston Bruins, Raymond had only 10 goals and 20 points in 55 games this season. The Canucks want to reduce his current $2.6-million salary by $390,000 – the 15 per cent maximum cut allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
“To be fair, they talked to us for about a week before they filed so it wasn’t a surprise,” Barry said. “Mason wants to have a better year and he’s not terribly concerned about playing for a little less. The concern, more than just the money, is whether this is symbolic of a lesser role or opportunity on the team. That’s obviously something that’s very important from our side.”
Rather than grant Raymond unrestricted free agency by not tendering the 26-year-old a qualifying offer, the Canucks’ decision to arbitrate means he will be back after being told he’s not worth $2.6 million per season.
“This isn’t about the money,” Gillis said. “I wasn’t satisfied with the end of the season and our meeting at the end of the season, and felt we needed to do more to motivate him to be a really good player. This is another tool to send the message that we expect better performance.
“I like Mason. I like him as a person. It doesn’t mean we’ve changed our feelings about Mason. It means we have high expectations and we want them fulfilled.”
Gillis has equally high expectations about the trade of Luongo.
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