VANCOUVER - As the Vancouver Canucks prepare for this weekend’s NHL draft in Pittsburgh, the countdown has begun on Roberto Luongo’s tenure on the West Coast.
Canucks assistant general manager Laurence Gilman declined to discuss the veteran goaltender’s situation specifically, but said general manager Mike Gillis has fielded several calls from other GMs interested in Vancouver players.
"There seems to be action in the league," said Gilman.
After the Canucks were eliminated in the first round by the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings in May, Luongo said he would be willing to accept a trade if that’s what the team wants. Cory Schneider displaced him as the No. 1 netminder in the final three games of the playoffs, although coach Alain Vigneault said the move was made in a bid to change momentum in the series, which the Kings took 4-1, not because of a poor performance from Luongo.
Schneider, a pending unrestricted free agent, is in line for a big raise, and the Canucks do not have room for two bona fide starters. But it remains to be seen whether the Canucks can obtain some decent draft picks as part of a package for Luongo.
There has been speculation he will generate little in return because his contract has 10 years remaining and translates into a $5.3-million annual salary-cap hit.
Meanwhile, Gilman said the Canucks, who are slated to pick 26th overall in the first round on Friday, plan to continue their practice of selecting the best player available with their top pick and then base their choices on positional needs. Centres and wingers are expected to be priorities.
"If you look at our organization, we have more depth at the back end and in goal than we do with forwards," Gilman said.
Only two centres from the 2011-12 season—Henrik Sedin and Max Lapierre—are expected to start the 2012-13 campaign. Ryan Kesler is recuperating from shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, which will keep him out until late November or December. Meanwhile, Sammy Pahlsson, whose trade-deadline acquisition cost the Canucks two fourth-round picks this year, will play in his native Sweden next season.
In this era of young players reaching the NHL quickly, the Canucks have had limited draft success under Gillis during his four years at the helm. Cody Hodgson (10th overall, 2008) is the only Gillis pick that has found regular employment in the NHL, but the centre was shipped to Buffalo at the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
However, Gilman pointed to other prospects who have a chance to stick with the Canucks next season—such as goaltender Eddie Lack, an April 2010 free-agent signing who is a candidate to back up Schneider if the netminding situation plays out as expected. He also pointed to defenceman Kevin Connauton, who was drafted in the third round (83rd overall) and winger Nicklas Jensen, the club’s top 2011 draft choice (29th overall), who was among Vancouver’s final pre-season cuts.
Lack and Connauton have spent the past two seasons in the American Hockey League with Canucks' farm clubs in Manitoba and Chicago. Jensen will attempt to make the jump to the NHL after two seasons of junior with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League.
"We’ve picked some good players," said Gilman. "Unfortunately, the byproduct of our success is that we’ve been picking later. So it’s a bit of a challenge."
With the Canucks finishing first overall the past two seasons and going to the Stanley Cup final in 2010-11, available roster spots have been few and far between.
"In fairness to anybody stepping into the Canucks lineup, it’s been a perennial 100-point, division-winning team," said Gilman. "Our lineup hasn’t been an easy one to crack."
But, he added, the Canucks have still enabled young players to get considerable NHL playing time. He pointed to the examples of Hodgson and Zack Kassian, who were traded for each other, as well as defenceman Chris Tanev, 22, who was not drafted but has played extensively during the regular-season stretch drive and playoffs in his first two pro seasons.
Critics and fans have been calling for Canucks to produce better results on draft day. Gilman said the Canucks hope to pick more players who can step into the lineup earlier, but it’s impossible to put a timeline on a player’s rise to the NHL from draft day.
Young players mature physically and develop their games at different rates, with goaltenders and defencemen usually take longer than forwards to become NHL-ready. Gilman said the Canucks want to give players the best possible chance to succeed by giving them extensive playing time in the AHL.
He noted the Detroit Red Wings, who have a very strong draft record, tend to have their prospects play a year longer than others in the AHL.
"We feel our player procurement, both through the draft and acquisitions, has been fairly good the past four years," said Gilman.
Pending any trades, the Canucks will pick in five of the seven rounds. Vancouver gave up its third-round selection to get Lapierre from Anaheim at the 2011 trade deadline. The Canucks also surrendered their fourth-round pick, along with another fourth-rounder acquired from the New York Islanders, to Columbus for Sammy Pahlsson at this year’s deadline.
Pahlsson subsequently signed with his former MoDo club in Sweden earlier this week.
Gilman said there is more uncertainty surrounding the early picks in this year's draft ,because no clear-cut franchise player is available. But he predicted many prospects will turn into "serviceable" NHLers.
"While there may not be high-end talent, there's breadth of talent," he said.