Canucks goalie fiasco a lesson in hubris

Jacob Markstrom may be a nice sneaky pick in your fantasy draft. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

So that’s it, then.

It appears, with goalie Jacob Markstrom going on waivers today, that there will indeed be no big upside for the Vancouver Canucks from trading Roberto Luongo, once the team’s captain and franchise goalie, to the Florida Panthers last March.

It was one of Mike Gillis’s last acts as Canucks GM, and it’s probably good for him that he’s no longer around to answer questions on this particular subject.

Like, how’d you get it so bloody wrong, Mike?

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What we do know is that at the end of the 2011-12 season, Vancouver had a successful, veteran goalie available for trade, albeit one attached to a troublesome contract that at that time had nine years left at an annual cap hit of $5.33 million per season, but with some big salary numbers attached in the early years.

Luongo was 33 years old, and had been beaten out, or at least succeeded, by Cory Schneider for the No. 1 goaltending position with the Canucks. It certainly appeared the Canucks, even if they chose to keep Luongo and move Schneider, had a solid starter going forward, and a valuable goalie to trade.

Instead, they ultimately ended up trading both, creating a national hockey soap opera and getting remarkably little in return as the team deteriorated. With Markstrom now out of Vancouver’s plans — they’ll go with Ryan Miller and Eddie Lack at the NHL level — the sum total of the assets required for Luongo and Schneider amount to veteran checker Shawn Matthias and first-round pick Bo Horvat of the London Knights.

That’s not very much at all for two bona fide NHL starters, is it?

Plus, of course, Vancouver is on the hook for 15 percent of Luongo’s contract, which expires in 2022. That’s $800,000 off the cap every year until then, certainly not a fortune, but money that could be used elsewhere. Luongo has four more seasons at a salary of $6.714 million, then the salary drops dramatically after that.

For the Panthers, it ends up being a pretty good deal. They gave up essentially nothing, it seems, to get Luongo, and now pay a cap hit less than 14 other NHL starters for a goalie who might get them to the post-season in the mediocre Eastern Conference, a place they very much need to get to.

At least, it could be argued, the Canucks put an end to an organizational nightmare, which had both Luongo and centre Ryan Kesler desperately wanting out last season as the team plummeted out of the playoffs just three years after being in the Stanley Cup final. New GM Jim Benning didn’t have to deal with Luongo’s situation or his contract, and with new coach Willie Desjardins in place and Kesler off to Anaheim, the Canucks have closed the window of opportunity to win the Cup in the short term and begun rebuilding with youth.

Looking back, it’s easy to say Gillis bungled the entire business, going from being goalie rich to goalie poor with precious little to show for it all. He lost his job, a heavy price to pay.

The 12-year contract signed in September 2009, to start with, was a terrible error, and maybe the Canucks paid an unofficial price (New Jersey paid an official one) for being a party to one of those contracts clearly designed to circumvent the collective bargaining agreement.

The key to the entire debacle was a massive misreading of the market by Gillis, who insisted he could wring major assets out of another club for Luongo at a time when the market was made unstable as the league hurtled towards another lockout.

Still, the Maple Leafs and GM Brian Burke would probably have been willing to pay a significant price to get Luongo at the 2012 draft. They’d missed the playoffs again under Burke, and the change in ownership meant the bombastic executive was being questioned more intensively by the new owners, particularly Bell boss George Cope.

Burke almost certainly would have coughed up one of Nazem Kadri or Jake Gardiner, at that time their two best prospects, along with a first-rounder. Maybe one other asset. But Gillis, who did have to deal with Luongo’s no trade clause, had created an expectation on the Lower Mainland he would be able to get much, much more, and that multiple teams were interested in bidding for the goalie.

By March of 2013, the lockout had changed some of the rules on these contracts, making Luongo’s even more awkward to deal with. Dave Nonis (Gillis’s predecessor, and not a friendly colleague) had replaced Burke, James Reimer was in the process of taking the Leafs to the post-season and a last minute effort by Gillis to move Luongo to Toronto at the trade deadline for next to nothing and with the Canucks paying part of his salary fell apart, leaving the goalie in tears and saying he’d happily rip up his contract just to play elsewhere.

Then, making things even worse, Gillis reversed course and traded Schneider to New Jersey for a first-round pick, hoping Luongo could re-establish himself as an all-star in Vancouver. When Lack started the Heritage Classic at B.C. Place last winter instead of Bobby Lu, however, it was clear that wasn’t going to work either.

All you can really say now is that had Gillis recognized the fix he was in, rather than arrogantly believing he was in a position of strength back in 2012, he either would have built on Toronto’s initial interest and Burke’s desperation to get a goalie or moved Schneider, who probably would have been worth more around the league and to more teams. It would have taken guts to do that, something like Montreal trading away playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to keep Carey Price. Gillis then would have then had the cap room from a Luongo trade or the assets from a Schneider deal to work with going into the lockout, and perhaps the Canucks could have taken another run at the Cup.

Or, he could have swallowed his pride and taken the offer from Nonis in March 2013, which wouldn’t have been appealing but couldn’t have been worse than what he ultimately got from Florida. It would have been a recognition of reality, but terribly embarrassing just the same. Doing that, however, would have at least allowed the Canucks to keep Schneider, and they then could have used the money invested in Miller this summer somewhere else on the roster.

But it didn’t happen that way. Now Markstrom has demonstrated he isn’t the franchise-goalie-in-waiting the Panthers once believed he was, although it’s unclear whether the Canucks actually believed they were getting a potential starter last March when they made the deal or just wanted to end the Luongo mess.

Lots of hockey trades don’t pan out, or backfire. What’s unusual about this one, of course, is that it was really about two trades and about a very talented team, a Cup contender, that frittered away an embarrassment of riches between the pipes. If Horvat becomes a legitimate top-six forward, well, that will at least be something.

It’s a hard lesson about overvaluing assets, about how contracts impinge on the marketability of athletes, and how the hubris of a hockey executive can be his worst enemy.

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