VANCOUVER - Heads, Roberto Luongo wins. Tails, Cory Schneider loses. Alain Vigneault is not only a great coach, he’s an illusionist, too.
For the fourth straight game, Vigneault is playing what is supposed to be his backup goalie Monday night. The Vancouver Canucks are in Edmonton. We’re not sure where general manager Mike Gillis will be after he surfaced Sunday at the Washington Capitals’ home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Gillis is trying to trade Luongo, currently described by Vigneault as “the guy who gives our team the best chance to win.” Gillis’s coach is so convinced of this that he admitted after Sunday’s practice in Vancouver that when he flipped a coin to decide his starter against the Oilers, Luongo had the benefit of both heads and tails.
So it is logical to ask: Does Vigneault do other party tricks? And: Why is the general manager trying to trade the goalie the coach says gives his team the best chance to win?
“I just think with the condensed schedule and the importance of every game and every point, it’s a little different scenario than usual,” Schneider explained. “Your (pre-season) strategies kind of go out the window a little bit and you just do everything you can to win. I’m not over-thinking it.”
Well, that makes at least one person not over-thinking the Canucks’ unorthodox deployment of their previous and current (so we were led to believe) No. 1 goaltenders.
The Capitals don’t have a No. 1 goalie and certainly fit the profile, described recently by Gillis, as a team that would be interested in Luongo even if they’ve been left out of the months-long conjecture about where the 33-year netminder may land.
If they want Luongo, the Capitals have a young goalie to spare — either Braden Holtby or Michal Neuvirth — and several enticing players, including Swedish centre Marcus Johansson, who could be the centrepiece of the deal for Vancouver.
Luongo’s no-trade clause gives him a say, of course, but not only has he not spoken to Gillis about the Capitals, he hasn’t heard from the GM since the season began.
“I’m not really concerned with that right now unless he’s got something to say,” Luongo said Sunday. “It’s a unique situation we’re in.”
Yes, it’s not every day a goalie two seasons into a 12-year, $64-million contract gets deposed as the starter, agrees with management that trading him is the best course, then nine months later is not only still on the team but playing ahead of the guy who was supposed to replace him.
As commentator Ben Wright once said of golf: “Funny old game.”
The biggest news for the Canucks on Sunday was not that Gillis went to Washington, but that injured Vancouver star Ryan Kesler went out on the ice for a full practice for the first time since surgeries last spring.
Kesler, who scored 41 goals and won the Selke Trophy two years ago, will likely make a greater impact when he returns to the Canuck lineup than anyone Gillis acquires for Luongo.
“You don’t replace a Ryan Kesler and all the minutes that he plays and those tangibles he brings game in and game out,” Vigneault said. “When he’s ready to play, he’s going to help us. He wants to play, wants to get out there and help his teammates. Hopefully, that will be real soon.”
Kesler didn’t sound like he’d be playing soon. But he’s on the Canucks’ two-game road trip that ends Thursday in Minnesota and should return before the “several months” his agent, Kurt Overhardt, predicted in December Kesler would remain out.
He had shoulder surgery last May 8 and was just beginning to increase the intensity of rehabilitation when he learned his wrist also needed surgery, which occurred June 27. The second operation delayed the recovery from the first, and Kesler spent the entire NHL lockout on the injured list.
“They didn’t know until after I got my first surgery that I actually needed surgery on my wrist,” Kesler said Sunday. “It was a big surprise to me and a big surprise to everybody else. I guess you could say there was a huge ‘wow’ factor like: I need surgery again? That put me back a couple of months.
“I just got the shoulder going when I had the surgery on my wrist. There was a ligament completely torn off the bone and they had to put an anchor in to sew it back down. I hurt it (last) November but just couldn’t figure out what was going on there. We thought it was a pinhole tear, but it ended up being something way bigger.”
It turns out Kesler had two strikes against him last season. He required major hip surgery after the Canucks’ Stanley Cup run in 2011. He missed the first five games of last season, and Kesler said he returned too soon. Just about the time he started feeling better on the ice, he injured his wrist. No wonder his goals fell by nearly half, to 22.
And it’s no wonder the 28-year-old is adamant he won’t rush back this time, even if Vigneault said it may take only “a couple” of practices before Kesler plays. Sunday was his first practice. The next one will be Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn.
The Canucks have time for quality practices next week, when they play only twice before starting a survival test of 23 games in 44 days.
“I think all you guys know I don’t like to sit on the sidelines and watch,” Kesler said. “I don’t think anybody does (but) I just have to be smart about this. There’s a chance I could come back early, but it’s not worth it. I don’t feel comfortable yet; that was my first skate.
“It’s been an extremely long, hard road for me. There’s still no timeline. I had to be patient; that was my biggest thing. I had to keep telling myself ‘baby steps.’ I’ve still got to be patient. There’s still a long way to go.”
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun