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Canucks take big risk by trading Luongo

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- In a little more than eight months, the Vancouver Canucks have gone from trying to choose between goaltenders Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider to having neither.

After shocking the hockey world, and both its goalies, by trading Schneider to the New Jersey Devils at the 2013 NHL Draft, Vancouver was at it again Tuesday. This time, they surprised even Luongo by sending him to the Florida Panthers, his former team, in a four-player trade on the eve of the NHL Trade Deadline.

Just like that, the best goalie in franchise history and his heir apparent are gone from the Canucks. In their place are rookie Eddie Lack and unproven prospect Jacob Markstrom, who was acquired from Florida along with center Shawn Matthias for Luongo and left wing Steven Anthony.

Just like that, Vancouver has gone from a proven veteran with almost 800 NHL games played, a run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, and two Olympic gold medals, to two goalies with less than 70 games of combined experience in the NHL, no Stanley Cup Playoff experience, and lots of question marks.

"There is going to be a drop-off in experience for sure," Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said. "There is a risk in all of this stuff, but you have to take some risk in order to make these kinds of moves."

As for how the Canucks ended up without either of their star goalies from last season, Gillis said he needed to trade one in order to get under a shrinking salary cap for the 2013-14 season. Luongo's 12-year, $64-million contract through 2021-22 limited his trade options, and Gillis said Luongo's no-trade clause further complicated matters.

"[Luongo] was able to exercise an element of control," Gillis said. "The team he really wanted to go to that he made people aware of was Florida and they didn't have the wherewithal. Would we have done things differently? Perhaps, but we didn't have control of the situation."

Gillis said the Panthers' ability to acquire Luongo changed with new ownership. But why would Vancouver trade Luongo now, especially with Schneider already gone and its season on the line? Vancouver is on the fringes of the Western Conference race, two points out of a playoff berth but in a grouping of five teams separated by six points in the battle for the final spot.

Gillis insisted a controversial decision to start Lack instead of Luongo at the 2014 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic on Sunday was not a factor in the timing, though he did admit to talking with Luongo's agent, Pat Brisson, after the decision was made. Luongo also downplayed the slight that left 54,194 fans chanting his name at BC Place, but it is clear his desire to leave Vancouver never changed, even after Schneider left.

Gillis was finally able to fulfill that nearly two-year-old request Tuesday.

"Am I happy about the resolution?" Gillis said. "Yes I am."

All of which leaves the Canucks with a lot of questions, and not much experience, in goal for the rest of the season.

Lack, 26, was signed as an undrafted free agent and played his 26th NHL game Tuesday against the Phoenix Coyotes after spending his first three pro seasons in the American Hockey League. Markstrom has a better pedigree as the 31st pick in the 2008 NHL Draft and has been considered the best goalie not in the NHL for a while. However, the 24-year-old Swede has 11 wins and a save percentage of .898 in 43 games with Florida, and has spent most of this season back in the AHL.

"But Eddie's experience rivals Cory's from last year in a lot of ways, and Jacob's experience rivals Cory's when he first came up from Winnipeg [of the AHL] and was a backup, so relatively speaking there are some similarities, just some years removed," Gillis said.

Neither Lack nor Markstrom will have Luongo as a mentor, something Gillis cited as a key element in the maturation of both Schneider and Lack. They will, however, have goalie coach Roland Melanson, whose role in these decisions, including the Heritage Classic starter, should not be underestimated.

Roberto Luongo
Goalie - FLA
RECORD: 19-16-6
GAA: 2.38 | SVP: 0.917
Gillis agreed Markstrom fit the style Melanson prefers -- a deeper-in-the-crease approach that minimizes movement. It's worked well for the 6-foot-4 Lack, and should also allow the 6-foot-6 Markstrom to use his size more efficiently and effectively than he has to date.

While playing in Europe, Markstrom was praised for his patience and ability to react late to shots. In North America, pucks went through an overactive Markstrom too often for a goaltender of his size as he transitioned to the smaller ice surfaces.

"We like his size and athleticism," Gillis said, "We feel strongly that with continued work and structure he has a chance to be a terrific goalie. He is very good now but he certainly has the tools to work with him and advance him and we're excited about getting him."

Lack will also rely on Melanson for help in the transition from backup to starter. It's one Schneider struggled with at times as the increased workload made it harder to find time for the position-specific work with Melanson that made it easier to play well after prolonged stretches watching Luongo start.

Now it's Markstrom's turn to benefit from that technical fine-tuning, while Lack learns to live without it.

"We feel strongly about his demeanor," Gillis said of Lack. "As he gains experience, he is going to be a top-flight goaltender."

Lack has a familiarity with Markstrom. He backed up Markstrom for a season in the Swedish Elite League, and both still work with renowned Brynas goaltending coach Pekka Alcen during the summer.

Their roles will now be reversed in Vancouver. And if neither proves ready to take over the starting job, Gillis pointed out that he has other options in goal later this summer.

"The free agent [pool] is not strong this summer, except for the goaltending position, so if we feel we need more experience or a different look, it will be available," Gillis said. "But we have to two really good young goalies now we think highly of, and we are going to hopefully get our group to rally around them and play well in front of them."

It's just not the goalies anyone expected to be here a year ago.

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