In a time of seemingly endless change for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team is preparing to enter an offseason that promises to feature yet another time of significant change.
On the docket of things to acquire and inject into the lineup for Brian Burke this summer are the much publicized needs for physicality and toughness in the top 6 forward group, solidifying the goaltending position – knowing that Reimer will be staying means Gustavsson is gone – and continuing to pursue the elusive first line centre that the Leafs have sorely missed since Mats Sundin departed (anyone else dream of the potential of Mats centering Phil Kessel? *drool*). The relatively recent news of Roberto Luongo willing to waive his No Trade Clause (NTC) and submit a list of 5 teams he would accept a trade to automatically brings with it controversy and speculation. Naturally, the Leafs need for an upgrade in goal – particularly in the form of a veteran to help James Reimer (who has been unfairly criticized in my opinion) in his development – has created a buzz and rumours that centre around Luongo being dealt to Toronto. Is it feasible? Yes. Should it be done? That’s not as easy a question to answer.
Frist off, it should be noted that Luongo would be a significant upgrade in goal, and the best goaltender the Leafs would ice since the days of Eddie Belfour, and subsequently the days of playoff hockey in Toronto. Subtext: goaltending is key. He’s been one of the league’s best goaltenders of the last decade, but many feel his best days are behind him. He just recently turned 33, so he should be able to muster up a few more decent seasons, but it’s not as though he’s been inept for the Vancouver Canucks, though many of their fans would swear so. Last year, he posted 31 wins in 55 games, while the Leafs franchise record is 37 wins by a goaltender. The two season’s prior, Luongo registered 38 and 40 wins in 60 and 68 games respectively. The former 4th overall pick has never had a season with a save percentage below .908, and that includes playing on some sub-standard teams throughout. His career average, in fact features a .919 save percentage, and a 2.52 goals against average, but it’s worth mentioning that he’s bettered that SVP in 4 of his last 6 seasons, and had a significantly lower GAA in 5 of the previous 6 seasons. In summation, Roberto Luongo is still a very competent goaltender in this league, and while he may be nearing the latter stages of his career, there’s no reason he can’t still put up 40-50 solid games. Perhaps his days as a 70+ game starter are gone, but that might even be a blessing in disguise. With a young Reimer, and a goalie that has been beaten down by media and fans and handled it very well in Luongo, it seems like a perfect match. Both goaltenders would be seeking to prove themselves in different manners, and the competition would still be high.
So why doesn’t everyone think it’s a great idea to trade for Luongo? For starters, his contract – though a manageable $5.3 million per year – lasts until 2021-22. When Luongo hits the age of 40, the Leafs would be paying him $1.6 million, but he’d be taking up a caphit of $5.3 million. What’s more is that trading for a still high-profile goaltender in this league, capable of being a starter won’t necessarily come cheap. If the Leafs hold one advantage, it’s that Luongo will be leaving Vancouver and that Mike Gillis will be forced to make a deal with one of the 5 teams that Luongo submits to the Vancouver GM. Should that list include Toronto, the Leafs will thus be challenged by 4 other potential suitors rather than the near dozen that would ultimately have interest if there was no 5-team list. Furthermore, Dave Nonis – the Leafs assistant General Manager – pulled off the deal that brought Luongo to Vancouver where the goaltender enjoyed some of the most successful years of his career including winning a gold medal for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics and coming to within 1 victory of a Stanley Cup Championship. Amazing how Luongo put up good numbers this year (31-14-8, 2.41 GAA, .919 SVP) after a solid playoff run last year, and didn’t play poorly in this year’s playoffs, yet so many have dubbed him a has been. It’s an interesting scenario where the Canucks don’t exactly have a ton of leverage after Luongo made it public that he’d have no issues with waiving his NTC to play elsewhere, but they have enough leverage in that Luongo is still a very capable netminder. The Canucks will be looking for cheap assets in the form of young prospects and draft picks.
Leafs fans are divided – surprise surprise – on the Luongo talks with some thinking it is meaningless to surrender the necessary combination of picks, prospects and/or players for a hopeful 4-6 years of play from an aging netminder, particularly when cheaper options are available through free-agency. Others feel – especially after watching these playoffs with the likes of Mike Smith and Jonathan Quick carrying their respective teams – that goaltending is fundamental to success, and one shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to acquire a starter. Both views hold merit, but it comes down to the specific price. The Leafs holding a high-draft pick this year is important to any discussion, especially when you consider the caliber of players drafted early in the 2nd round (Leafs have the 35th overall selection). I didn’t mention the 5th overall pick because I can’t imagine that would be used in a deal for Luongo.
The peril of dealing for Luongo is that it could feasibly use up certain assets the Leafs would need to improve the team elsewhere, like the aforementioned need for a top 6 forward or two. That said, Brian Burke is nothing if not creative on the trade front, and if he feels he’s got the necessary assets to add a quality goaltender – be it Luongo or not – in addition to finding solutions elsewhere, then we as a fan base can only trust in that. In sum, it’s a high risk, but potentially high-reward situation. Luongo could begin the downfall of his career at any time, but at 33 he’s still at an age that goaltenders are very much able. Ryan Miller and Ilya Bryzgalov are set to turn 32 this summer, and there are few if any that question their abilities to produce several more successful seasons between the pipes. The same goes for 34 and 35 year olds Niklas Backstrom and Miika Kiprusoff, both of whom have shown the ability to play at high levels this season. On the higher end of the spectrum, Martin Brodeur – though in a league of his own – hit the 40 plateau and has his team on the verge of the Eastern Conference Finals, while Tim Thomas put together another great season at the age of 38. Should the price tag for Luongo exceed what Burke is willing to pay, look to Jonathan Bernier as a potential option. While largely unproven, the 23 year old is one of the top goaltending prospects in the game right now, and with 26-year-old Jonathan Quick’s heroics in LA the time may be right to make a deal for Bernier. That said, the Leafs would be heading into the season with two young and unproven goaltenders, much the same as they did coming into this season. There’s no doubt that Bernier’s potential eclipses those of Gustavsson and Reimer, but the Leafs also have a developing goaltender by the name of Ben Scrivens who could likely fill in the same role without surrendering assets should the Leafs not find the veteran they desire. Would you feel comfortable with a Bernier/Reimer combination? Would you rather save those assets for a top 6 forward or top line centre and roll Reimer and Scrivens? Would you opt to sign a Josh Harding, Tomas Vokoun or Martin Biron if available via Free Agency?
Whatever the case, Roberto Luongo is likely to be heavily discussed in conversations of potential suitors for the Leafs crease over the coming weeks and months both amongst fans and in the professional world as we get closer to the draft and the thick of the off-season. Personally, I think it would be best to address our needs for forwards and see what’s available on July 1st as far as goaltending help before putting all our eggs in the Luongo basket. Despite him likely being the best goaltender the Leafs could acquire this off-season, the combination of assets needed and the contract length is just enough to create some hesitation. I don’t envy Burke at a time like this.