As of the writing of this sentence, the news of Cory Schneider’s deal with the Vancouver Canucks—worth $12 million over 4 years—is bouncing around Twitter, auguring the beginning of the end of the Roberto Luongo trade saga. Many have speculated that nothing would happen with the aging netminder until Schneider had signed a deal, and now that he (Schneider) has, nothing stands between Luongo and a new team.
The arguments in favour of bringing Luongo to Toronto are of necessity short-sighted. ‘Sure, the contract is long, but Luongo in net for the Leafs means a playoff appearance in 2013. As for the 8 years he’ll count against the cap after his 35th birthday, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.’ You swallow a bitter pill in the length of the contract—which everyone agrees is a problem—for immediate success. To be clear, I have no doubt that Luongo does get the Leafs into the playoffs. Indeed, for the next two years I expect Luongo to outperform his cap hit. What worries me, and what should worry Brian Burke, is what happens after the next two years.
Around this time last year, it was announced that Paul Holmgren had signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a 9-year, $51 million contract. The Flyers, who had a recent history of inconsistent (read: bad) goaltending, had attempted to solve the problem once and for all by locking in a proven goaltender for an extremely long term. Many here lambasted the signing; it was even referred to as "criminally insane." For comparison’s sake, if the Leafs were to acquire Luongo this offseason, they would be going into the 2012-13 season carrying a goalie contract staggeringly similar to Bryzgalov’s. Where Bryzgalov was signed for 9 years, Luongo would be signed for 10. Where Bryzgalov’s cap hit was $5.67 million, Luongo’s is $5.33 million. We are, it seems, approaching the territory of the criminally insane. Add to this the fact that Bryzgalov was 31 when he started the first year of his nine, whereas Luongo will be 33 when he starts the first of his ten remaining years, and the picture looks even worse. Imagine Luongo were a free agent, and Brian Burke signed him to such a contract Sunday morning. How would you feel? Now imagine that he had to give up assets in order to sign that deal. It’s the worst of both worlds—UFA overpayment and trading away valuable pieces.
Is Luongo better than Brygalov? Undoubtedly. But what was mocked—and rightly so—about the Bryzgalov signing wasn’t that the Flyers had acquired a sub-par goaltender, but that they had signed one well into his twilight years, and then beyond those and into his midnight-3am years. They will be paying over $5 million for a 40 year old goaltender. Even if we assumed that the salary cap would keep growing, which it’s not guaranteed to do (at least at the same rate), that’s a boat anchor of a contract. It was the logic of the contract, not the player signing the contract, that was insane, and so we should wonder whether the fact that Luongo is better than Bryzgalov makes the contract any less horrible. Or, to put it slightly differently, no matter how good Luongo is now, he won’t be nearly as good when he’s 40.
The crucial difference, though, is that the Philadelphia Flyers were competitive this season, and will likely remain so for the next few years, which will also cover the last good years (in all likelihood) of Bryzgalov’s career. Unlike the Leafs who would be given a shot at the playoffs, locking Bryzgalov into the net gave the Flyers a shot (or so it was believed before his collapse earlier this season) at the Stanley Cup. They had addressed the one glaring weakness everyone agreed they had, and they were legitimate contenders.
Neither of those conditions apply in the case of Luongo and the Leafs. While goaltending is a notable weakness of the Leafs, it is hardly the only thing standing between them and a Stanley Cup Final appearance. The Leafs don’t really have a shutdown defenceman outside of their top pairing (assuming they stick with the Gunnarsson-Phaneuf pairing of last year). The Leafs don’t have a good centre for Phil Kessel. The Leafs (at least according to Brian Burke) are too small. Whatever you want to include on the list of fixes that are needed, that list isn’t one item long.
In addition, the core of this team, which at least includes Jake Gardiner and Phil Kessel, is still fairly young. While Luongo would look good on the Leafs next year, what happens four years from now when the Leafs’ core is well into its prime and (hopefully) contending, and Luongo is 37 years old and has SIX years left at a $5.3 million cap hit? Unless the Leafs plan on improving over the next four years and then calling it quits, that’s a major problem going forward. It is rare that 37 year old goalies are worth over $5 million dollars. And that’s with six years left on his contract. Hell, there was serious talk here that the Leafs should trade Mikhail Grabovski, of whom there are many Certified Lovers, because he would be too old by the time the core of the team hit its prime. Grabovski is five years younger than Luongo.
But, some of you might argue, just because Luongo’s behemoth of a contract is for another 10 years doesn’t mean that the Leafs will be tied to all of it. Look at what happened this year with Jeff Carter and Mike Richards! Those contracts got moved! Or we could always send Luongo to the minors, or even if worse comes to worst, buy him out!
To this latter line of thinking (bury him or buy him out), I have one response. Making a deal that benefits the Leafs now, when they still won’t be Cup contenders, only to cause significant problems when they hopefully will be, does not all of a sudden make sense because we might be able to bury the contract or buy it out when things get messy. That’s incredibly short-sighted, and banks on a future GM hopefully being able to solve that problem. We do not know what the new CBA brings, and assuming that we’ll be able to deal with Luongo’s contract just when the stakes are highest—when the Leafs are hopefully seriously competitive—is poor management.
As for trading him, little needs to be said. Gillis is having a hard enough time trading Luongo now, and Luongo is one of the best goalies in the league. I can’t begin to fathom how difficult it would be to move a 38-year-old goalie who is past his prime and signed for 5 more years. He will only get harder to trade.
People whinge and whine about Mike Komisarek’s contract now, and with good cause. But Komisarek’s is a bad contract on a bad team; the stakes aren’t very high. If Brian Burke has done what he has intended to (and that’s a big if), and the Leafs are competitive in 3-4 years from now, that’s precisely when we won’t want a Komisarek-esque contract clogging up the roster. This deal is the equivalent of selling your soul to the devil—short term gratification in exchange for suffering when it matters most. I understand the pain that comes with missing the playoffs yet again. It’s a pain I couldn’t have even imagined when I was a kid. But if Luongo is the price we have to pay to get into the playoffs next year, it’s not worth it.
(I've included a poll below. If you think we should trade for Luongo, explain why in the comments. I'd love to see both sides of this in case Burke goes on a spending spree.)