By Allan Muir
After an 18-month goaltending drama highlighted by trade demands, parody videos, emotionally charged press conferences and a rowdy, chanting crowd at the Heritage Classic, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis chose to hand his team's net over to ... Eddie Lack?
Somehow the unheralded Swedish prospect finds himself the undisputed No. 1 keeper in Vancouver after a stunning trade on Thursday that sent long-time starter Roberto Luongo to Florida, where, deliciously, he'll be partnered with 2011 Stanley Cup rival Tim Thomas.
The Canucks also tossed minor league forward Steven Anthony into the package and will receive goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom and forward Shawn Matthias in return. The Canucks will also pick up 15 percent of Luongo's tab.
That's not exactly the sort of bountiful haul that will push Vancouver's much-needed rebuild forward -- Markstrom is 24 and has failed multiple times to seize a job in Florida -- but this wasn't a hockey trade for Gillis. This was about ending a soap opera that had gone on too long, and which had threatened to erupt again after Luongo was benched by coach John Tortorella for last Sunday's Heritage Classic game.
And it was about moving an unmovable contract that will count $5.333 million against the cap through the 2021-22 season.
In those ways Gillis can call himself a winner. Vancouver can move on with Lack -- a respectable young netminder -- and some cap space which can be put to other uses moving forward.
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But the big picture is not so flattering. A year ago, the Canucks had one of the best goaltending tandems in the league, and while the battle for ice time was a distraction, especially after Luongo first demanded a trade, it also presented Gillis with an opportunity to shore up other areas of his organization by smartly peddling one of the two.
Instead, he badly misplayed his cards, leading Luongo to believe he'd been dealt at last year's deadline before telling him otherwise, then choosing to keep the veteran while sending Cory Schneider to New Jersey at the draft for the 10th overall pick.
Outside of running over Luongo's dog, it's hard to imagine how Gillis could have botched things more thoroughly. Until today.
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This deal didn't need to be made, at least not now. Gillis might have reaped a larger return over the summer, but his hand was forced by Tortorella's inexplicable decision to start Lack in the team's biggest game of the season. It had to feel like Groundhog Day, yet another slap in the face for Luongo. At that point, Gillis really had no choice.
So now his team is trotting out a pair of kids with 68 NHL games between them, and all he has to show for Luongo and Schneider is junior forward Bo Horvat, a bottom-six winger and a backup goalie with a great track record in the AHL but a legacy of failure at the next level.
In hockey terms, it's tough to quantify that as anything other than an epic failure. Not just because of the return, but because it always felt like there was no plan in place. That Gillis were flying by the seat of his pants and as a result, misjudged the market more than once.
Of course, this isn't exactly a grand slam for the Panthers, either. Sure, they repatriate one of the greatest players in franchise history, and maybe catch the attention of a few old fans in the process. But Luongo is 34 now. He'll be 42 when this deal runs out. How many of those years will be good ones? And is it reasonable to expect that he'll age gracefully, maturing into the elder statesman/Jedi Master role that he wasn't ready for in Vancouver?
There is one clear winner though: Luongo. He wanted to return to Florida, where his career took off, where he met his wife and started a family. And he wanted to be The Man again. So he's exactly where, and who, he wants to be. Can't help but be happy for a guy like that.