For Roberto Luongo, it was a home-coming nearly eight years in the making. In his first game back in Florida as a Panther since April 18th, 2006, Luongo certainly seemed comfortable in a 25-save shutout performance against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night. It even looked familiar, with Luongo donning an old Panther’s mask that he had kept from his Florida days.
It was Luongo’s 66th career clean slate, tying fellow francophone-born goaltending legend Patrick Roy for 14th on the all-time list, a testament to Luongo’s skill and perseverance through some hard times. Also like Roy, Luongo’s story will be largely remembered for one tumultuous night and the trade fall-out that was to follow.
Although there are few parallels in the stories of what happened to both men, the career-altering outcome for the player, as well as the affect on their respective franchises, is the same.
The game that defined the end of Roy’s tenure as a Montreal Canadien is largely remembered. On December 2nd, 1995 against the Detroit Red Wings, Roy was hung out to dry by Habs coach Mario Tremblay for nine goals before finally getting the hook in the worst home loss in Canadiens history. Roy, in his usual firey way, stormed past Tremblay on the bench and angrily told team President Ronald Corey, who was sitting behind the benches, “This is my last game in Montreal”.
Four days later, Roy found himself shipped off to Colorado after two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythe Trophies and three Vezinas as a Canadien. For Roy, the trade worked out wonderfully; he would add two more Cups and another Smythe as an Av, cementing his place among the best goalies of his generation.
Montreal on the other hand, likely still hasn’t recovered. In the 18 seasons since “Le Trade”, the Habs have won just six playoff series (including just one in the six seasons immediately following Roy’s departure), and have few accolades other than an appearance in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.
For their part, they did eventually make up with Roy, even retiring his jersey back in 2008. They also seem to have finally (with all due respect to Jose Theodore, who won a Hart Trophy in Montreal and then promptly fell off the face of the earth) found the heir to Montreal’s goaltending throne in the form of Gold Medal-winning goaltender Carey Price. However, it’s clear that one bad decision set the franchise back for years.
In the case of Luongo and the Canucks, it was the decision not to play the goaltender that ultimately unraveled his tenure in the crease. However, as much as last week’s trade shocked many in the hockey world, the situation in Vancouver had been percolating for some time.
As far back as the 2012 off-season, it’s been known that Luongo wanted out of Vancouver. His back-up at the time, Cory Schneider, had usurped Luongo’s role as the Canucks starter against Los Angeles in the playoffs that year. Back and forth the two would struggle for playing time as management tried to move Luongo’s massive contract, before finally having their hand forced and trading Schneider instead at last year’s draft.
Heading into this season, with the starter’s role firmly his again, many felt that Luongo and the team could put the situation behind them. Then came the 2014 Heritage Classic against the Ottawa Senators, a game that Canucks fans will likely never forget, for all the wrong reasons.
As coach John Tortorella sees it, he was just giving his team the best chance to win. However, starting rookie back-up Eddie Lack over Luongo in a franchise-defining game proved to be a massive error, and not just because they lost the game. At a time when the Canucks looked to be mending fences, that decision turned out to be the final dagger in the back.
Luongo’s agent Pat Brisson approached Canucks general manager Mike Gillis shortly afterwards and re-expressed his client’s interest to leave Vancouver. Though all of this went on very quietly and behind closed doors, not on national television as Roy had done, the outcome was nearly identical: just two days later Luongo found himself packing up his bags and moving south.
Whether Luongo can find the same success in Florida as Roy found in Colorado is highly debatable and, frankly, unlikely. However, he’s back home with his family in the place where he established himself as an elite NHL goaltender, and seems content to while away the remaining eight years on his contract in the Florida sun.
Much like Roy had done, Luongo provided the Canucks with some of their loftiest highs in recent memory. Two Vezina nominations, a Stanley Cup final appearance, and franchise records in both wins (233) and shutouts (35) to go along with two Olympic gold medals while establishing himself as one of the elite goalies of his generation.
Where the team goes from here though, now that Luongo is no longer plying his trade in the Vancouver goal, is anybody’s guess.
The Canucks are suffering through one of their poorest stretches of play ever. They have just three regulation wins since the new year, and a crushing 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on Thursday night in the second game of the post-Luongo era, a game in which they looked beyond disinterested, seems to have nearly sealed their playoff fate.
The team that has won the previous five Northwest Division titles and been within a game of the Stanley Cup just three short years ago, will instead be looking at a lottery pick come the summer.
The question is, can the Canucks avoid the struggles that Montreal endured after Roy left? At this point, it seems unlikely. With an aging core, few blue-chip prospects on the horizon and a lame-duck GM that ownership seems to have lost faith in, the future in Vancouver is hazy at best.
Though they do have a solid stable of young goaltenders in Lack and newcomer Jacob Markstrom, they have gigantic shoes to fill, just as Jocelyn Thibault did for Montreal back in 1995. One of them may yet step up and become a legitimate starting goaltender in the NHL, but one thing is certain: when you trade away the franchise’s all-time great, there’s no easy way to come back. Just ask the Canadiens.
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