VANCOUVER - Now that new coach John Tortorella has been hired, Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis can try to complete a long-delayed project in conjunction with Sunday's NHL draft—trading goaltender Roberto Luongo.
"We're going to try and accomplish that goal," Gillis said this week. "We'll see what happens."
If other teams do not find the nine years remaining on Luongo's US$64-million contract onerous, his trade could help the Canucks acquire a veteran or some young talent in the form of prospects or draft picks. But Gillis will not be dealing from a position of strength.
Although Luongo's contract has a reasonable annual salary-cap hit of $5.3 million, clubs have to reduce their cap maximum to $64.3 million from about $70 million as part of the new collective bargaining agreement. The Canucks will also be missing a key bargaining chip if they want to move Luongo, who must agree to waive his no-trade clause.
"I think it's a strong draft," said Gillis. "I think there's opportunity, but we don't have a second-round pick, because we traded it at the trade deadline to try and get stronger for the playoffs. That's a practice that I don't like, and I haven't liked, and I'm not sure what we can do with that."
The Canucks sent their second-round pick to the Dallas Stars for centre Derek Roy and minor-league defenceman Kevin Connauton. Roy produced just one point in the playoffs as the Canucks were swept in the first round by the San Jose Sharks.
NHL clubs head into this year's draft with significant change looming when the 2013-14 season begins. In addition to salary-cap challenges, teams must deal with the implications of realignment and tougher battles for prime playoff positions.
Gillis expects the challenges and changes to spur trades.
"There's going to be a lot more moving parts now in the draft with compliance buyouts, a lower cap number, teams that are in a very narrow bend and want to improve—and want to improve immediately," he said. "There's a lot of different synergies going into this draft, I think, than in past years."
Under the new collective bargaining agreement that ended the NHL lockout, each team can buy out two players this season and next season to reduce salaries in compliance with the cap. Bought-out contracts do not count against the salary cap, but timing is becoming critical. The current buyout window closes July 4, a day before free agency opens.
But a buyout is not necessarily the best option for Luongo, because the Canucks would get nothing for an elite goaltender who should still be in demand, although perhaps less than in the past. Also, the Canucks have two other prime buyout candidates—high-priced defenceman Keith Ballard ($4.2 million annually) and winger David Booth ($4.25 million.)
The Canucks have the 24th overall pick in the first round and are slated to pick 85th, 115th, 145th, 175th and 205th in the third through seventh rounds. Gillis could be seeking to parlay some picks into immediate help as he and Tortorella believe that the club is close to contending for the Stanley Cup again after reaching the finals in 2010-11.
But the Canucks have a shortage of young NHL players who are usually in demand at this time of year as struggling teams attempt to rebuild and contenders try to obtain talent necessary for a Cup run. And, due to previous drafts that have not paid off, the Canucks have a shortage of minor-leaguers who are NHL-ready and would appeal to other clubs.
Gillis said the Canucks will continue their practice of drafting "the best player that fits the profile that we like."
That means they will not necessarily base their top pick on a specific positional need. Until recently, the need to acquire another goaltender, in case of Luongo's departure, was one of Vancouver's most pressing concerns. But Gillis signed former Swedish Elite League netminder Joacim Eriksson, potentially allowing for fellow Swede Eddie Lack to be promoted from the minors and serve as Cory Schneider's backup.
With Roy expected to move and Max Lapierre slated to become an unrestricted free agent next week, the Canucks could use more centres.
When it comes to dealing veterans to package with or without Luongo, Gillis is in a position of some strength. With the exceptions of Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who are entering their option years and hope to re-sign this summer, most of Vancouver's core players are under contract for at least three years.
So other teams would have some financial certainty while acquiring proven NHLers. However, all of Vancouver's core players have no-trade clauses that must be waived before a deal could occur.
Whether he is traded or bought out, Luongo expects to leave the Canucks. After Vancouver was eliminated by the Sharks, he said he does not think the club will keep both him and Schneider for another season.
Doing so would result in a $9.3-million salary-cap hit.
Note: Tortorella will not sit at the Canucks table during the draft. Coaches, he said, just get in the way of scouts while they are extremely busy.