Johnston: Desperate Canucks forced to deal Schneider

Mike Gillis (CP/Darryl Dyck)

NEWARK, N.J. – Mike Gillis put on a brave face.

“I think it’s worked out,” the Vancouver Canucks general manager said Sunday after sending a shockwave through the NHL draft by shipping Cory Schneider to New Jersey for the ninth overall pick.

Beneath the calm exterior there must have been at least a little bit of concern. This is far from an ideal situation and pretending otherwise would be foolish.

When your owner has to be dispatched to talk your No. 1 goalie off the ledge – Francesco Aquilini travelled to Florida to meet with a shaken Roberto Luongo – something is clearly amiss.

The Canucks had essentially been backed into a corner and were forced to deal Schneider after deciding they were unwilling to spend the $27 million it would take to use a compliance buyout on Luongo.

Gillis acknowledged that Schneider became his best bargaining chip the moment the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified in January because of the cap recapture penalty that was included in it.

That made the nine years remaining on Luongo’s front-loaded contract even more unpalatable. The cap penalty could be pretty stiff if the 34-year-old retires before the end of that deal, which is likely.

“There’s been some intervening features that have happened,” Gillis said. “We’ve had a lockout, then we have a new CBA and the new CBA has changed the terms of long-term contracts. When this contract was signed and ratified by the NHL, it was perfectly valid and accepted. …

“It was a changing landscape that affected our opportunities and we have to deal with them and we have to deal with them in a business-like fashion.”

As if the saga didn’t drag on long enough, there appeared to be a complete communication breakdown at the end of it.

Gillis acknowledged Sunday that Luongo wasn’t given any advance heads-up that he was going to remain with the team and Schneider was “shocked” when the call placed to his phone came with news of the trade.

“I didn’t really have much contact with them to be honest,” Schneider said on a conference call. “They didn’t really tell me what their plan was and what may or may not happen.

“I think after what we’ve been through … we didn’t receive a lot on our end as far as what to expect.”

The Canucks were in a desperate position and it showed.

As the line of questioning grew a little more pointed from reporters on the draft floor, Gillis noted that he didn’t have a crystal ball to gaze into after deciding last year he would trade Luongo and anoint Schneider the Canucks new No. 1 man.

If he did, he almost certainly would have dealt the veteran goalie for something – anything – when he had the chance last summer.

That this saga ended with the 27-year-old Schneider finding a new home rather than Luongo was essentially a confession that the situation wasn’t handled correctly.

“It really came down to where we could get the most value,” Gillis said.

“For the last year we explored every option we could possibly have,” he added. “Things were heating up this week and we just felt that we couldn’t go any longer with the situation we were in. We felt that for our organization and for our fans and for all of our sponsors we had to do something to get this situation resolved. This was the best opportunity here.”

The one wildcard in the deal was six-foot London Knights centre Bo Horvat, who the Canucks selected with the ninth pick.

Like basically everyone else in the Prudential Center – which erupted when the Schneider trade was announced – he had no idea Vancouver was even a possible destination for him. Horvat had only spoken to Canucks management once in the lead-up to the draft.

“It was shocking sitting there,” he said. “It’s really humbling that they traded a guy that high for me and I’m just really, really happy to be a part of the organization.”

Even if Horvat becomes a solid NHL player, New Jersey looks like the big winner in this transaction.

In one fell swoop, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello solidified his succession plan for 41-year-old goalie Martin Brodeur and stole the show at his home draft.

“This young man has proven to be a No. 1 goaltender,” Lamoriello said of Schneider. “We feel great about it. I’ve spoken to him, he’s just excited to come here and work with Marty.

“This is something that we feel just outstanding about.”

The feeling in Vancouver was a little different. Fans won’t soon forget this trade.

Gillis tried to paint a rosy picture by noting that three years ago the organization figured it would eventually trade Schneider for a high draft pick after it inked Luongo to a 12-year deal. Given what happened in the 36 months since then, it’s clear the plan changed along the way.

Yet the Canucks found themselves back at square one on Sunday and were forced into a deal they may come to regret.

“It was a very difficult decision to be made between two quality people and two quality goaltenders,” Gillis said.

Now their attention will turn to mending fences with Luongo and trying to put the bizarre goaltending saga behind them.

In recent days, Schneider said he spoke with his former goaltending partner on a couple occasions and predicted that Luongo would be motivated to prove something now that it’s finally over.

“He’s been a resilient guy,” Schneider said. “He’s been through a lot. He’s been counted out. He’s been knocked down and he always gets back up.”

The question is: Will the Canucks?

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