Canucks GM Mike Gillis left with just one card to play (with poll)
Vancouver needs to bulk up at centre — and Roberto Luongo is the only ace up general manager’s sleeve
Vancouver Canucks centre for rent? Tyler Bozak, 27, Toronto Maple Leafs — 34 games played, 9-11-20 points, minus-8, faceoff proficiency of 53%. Good: Lots of offensive ability, just entering prime. Good on faceoffs. Bad: Will command plenty as a rental, and could bolt back to the Leafs as UFA.
Photograph by: Claus Andersen, Getty Images
VANCOUVER — If this were like his old job and Mike Gillis still worked on commission, the Vancouver Canucks’ general manager would be broke.
It has been nearly a year since the National Hockey Club made the decision to install Cory Schneider as its starting goalie, profoundly changing the Canuck landscape. For most of the time since then, Gillis has been trying to sell a Roberto Luongo trade.
But with next Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline looming, Gillis, hugely successful at making deals as a player agent, has been unable to find anyone to meet the Canucks’ price for Luongo. And that is hurting the team.
With a cobbled lineup that includes minor-league callups Jordan Schroeder and Andrew Ebbett, as well as defenceman Keith Ballard playing left wing – on the third line! – the Canucks have somehow managed to win five straight games. They’ve built an eight-point playoff cushion and tilted their trajectory so that they’d be on pace for a 104-point season over 82 games.
Yes, it’s a good thing Schneider has been brilliant lately and that Gillis has as much conviction in coach Alain Vigneault as he has in his ability to fetch a significant return for Luongo.
But as configured, the Canucks still look two centres short of being able to go anywhere when the Stanley Cup playoffs start in May.
Former Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler, better than anyone the Canucks will acquire before the deadline, is expected to start skating in the next week or two after missing the last month with a broken foot.
That still leaves the Canucks one proven centre short.
The Canucks did not replace third-line centre Samuel Pahlsson last summer and didn’t plan terribly well for the absence of veteran faceoff king Manny Malhotra, removed by Gillis from the lineup six weeks ago over genuine concern for the player’s safety when it became apparent vision loss from a 2011 injury was permanent.
So, no Kesler, no Malhotra and no return so far for Luongo, one of the few bargaining chips the Canucks can afford to spend.
“The loss of those two players has been a significant blow to our lineup,” assistant GM Laurence Gilman, who spoke Wednesday on behalf of management, conceded. “Successful teams are built down the middle – strong at centre, strong on defence, strong goaltending – and that’s how our team was constructed. To the extent there is a hole in our lineup now, it’s at centre.
“I’m proud of how our team has battled since Ryan was injured and the effort we’re getting from Jordan Schroeder and Andrew Ebbett. But if we can add another experienced centre, we’ll feel even better about our team.”
After shoulder and wrist surgeries last summer to Kesler, the Canucks knew they’d start the season without their formidable two-way centre. It was impossible to plan for Kesler breaking his foot upon his return.
But Gillis said when explaining the bold decision to shut down Malhotra that the club knew after last season this was a possibility. Yet when Kesler followed Malhotra out of the lineup, the Canucks’ only options at centre between first-liner Henrik Sedin and fourth-liner Max Lapierre were Ebbett and Schroeder and short-lived experiments with career wingers Chris Higgins and Alex Burrows.
“We re-signed Ebbett [during the summer] to have him available and felt, as an organization, that we had to leave room for Jordan Schroeder to develop,” Gilman explained. “No team can just replace a player like Ryan Kesler, one of the best second-line centres in the league, a former Selke Trophy winner who plays in every situation for us.”
Ebbett is a good-guy journeyman, willing to accept any role but unlikely to hold a key one for long. And Schroeder, although far better in his second stint with the Canucks this season than his first, is still just a 22-year-old rookie and at five-foot-eight doesn’t fit anyone’s profile as a third-line centre. Especially in the playoffs, where big, brawny teams have won the last three Stanley Cups.
Even with Kesler, the Canucks don’t have enough size and experience down the middle, which is why Vancouver is trying to land another centre.
This brings us back to Luongo. Years of suspect drafting and trading picks, by this regime and the one that preceded it, has left the Canucks without a bankroll of prospects from which to purchase help at the deadline.
They can’t afford to trade Nicklas Jensen or Brendan Gaunce or Frank Corrado or this year’s first-round pick. Who they can afford to lose is Luongo.
Despite the failure of the trade mission so far, Gilman gave no indication the club is willing to lower its asking price for the soon-to-be 34-year-old goalie with nine years and $41.6 million US remaining on his contract after this season.
The Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs were willing trade partners in June, but Luongo reportedly refused then to waive his no-trade clause for anyone but the Florida Panthers.
After the Canucks were waltzed in circles by Luongo’s first choice, Vancouver and Toronto tried again to make a deal before and after the autumn lockout. But negotiations didn’t get past a framework that included Leafs’ centre Tyler Bozak and a draft pick because Toronto refused to surrender prospect Nazem Kadri and Vancouver didn’t like the other prospects they were offered.
Gilman insisted the Canucks aren’t being stubborn or unreasonable in their valuation of Luongo.
Bozak is now considered one of the prime rental players – those on an expiring contract – who could be traded before noon Wednesday.
“Has there been a goaltender traded this season?” Gilman argued. “It’s not like we’re clinging to our goalies while other teams are acquiring them.
“Goaltending is a bellwether position in the National Hockey League. You can’t win without it. It’s like pitching in baseball. In the [trade] discussions we’re having with other teams, they’re asking about our goaltenders.”
The Canucks aren’t trading Schneider. And if they don’t trade Luongo, they’ll be in the same position next summer as they were last summer, except their asset is a year older and the team will be facing a payroll crunch as the salary cap drops to $64.3 million for 2013-14.
“From an efficiency standpoint, to have $9.33 million invested in two goaltenders when only one of them can play is clearly not the most efficient use of resources,” Gilman said. “That being said ... Roberto is still in the prime of his career and can stabilize a NHL team for years to come. That’s an asset that’s extremely hard to come by. It would be foolish for us to trade Roberto for a rental player.”
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