From a distance, trading for 33-year-old Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo
would seem like a fairly obvious and wise decision for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Delving deeper into the complexities of a potential deal, however, and the answer isn't quite is obvious. Far from it in fact. In essence, the merits of such a deal come down to one central question: Now or later? The Leafs must decide what their ultimate end-game is in making or not making a trade for Luongo. Now
Do the Leafs believe they can compete for a Stanley Cup within the next 3-5 years? If the answer is yes – and the package going to Vancouver is amenable – they should make the deal.
At its surface, Luongo instantly and dramatically solidifies the Toronto crease, a source of instability and frustration for the past six seasons. Even last year, a year that resulted in the loss of his number one job to Cory Schneider
, offered elite numbers – 2.41 goals against average and .919 save percentage – that would dwarf those of any Leaf netminder since Ed Belfour
Adding a goaltender of such status would give the Leafs a legitimate 3-5 year window to make the playoffs (a likely time-frame for Luongo to remain elite) and eventually compete for a Stanley Cup. Luongo turns 34 in April. It's conceivable that he could play toward his 40th birthday – Brodeur turns 41 in May – if he's interested in such a timeline, which is far from certain.
Luongo would boost the Leafs playoff chances immediately and significantly, further legitimizing their crease in a conference that includes the likes of Henrik Lundqvist
, Marc-Andre Fleury
, Carey Price
, Martin Brodeur
, Tuukka Rask
, Ryan Miller
, Cam Ward
, and Ondrej Pavelec
. The club would no longer be at a disadvantage in goal when facing off against conference peers. Luongo's presence would also radiate amongst his new teammates, eliminating the constant angst that comes with weak goaltending.
The free agent class for the summer of 2013 looks to be promising. With Luongo on board, the Leafs would have upwards of $17 million available (more is possible with any buyouts exercised) with an inclination to add one or two major pieces, the likes of Ryan Getzlaf
, Corey Perry
and Alex Edler potentially on the market. Suddenly, the Leafs could possess an interesting and dangerous core for 2013-2014 that would include Luongo, Jake Gardiner
, Morgan Rielly
, Phil Kessel
(expiring), Dion Phaneuf
(expiring), James Van Riemsdyk
, Mikhail Grabovski
, John-Michael Liles
along with said free addition one and two.
Such a core would, at the very least, make the Leafs an intriguing candidate in the East. One that's capable of competing for a Stanley Cup? That's the question.
And what of the cap penalties the Leafs would face at the outset of Luongo's retirement? Those would be happily accepted if they brought a Stanley Cup conversation to Toronto. Later
The Leafs determine that their roster is not suitably constructed to compete for a Stanley Cup within the aforementioned 3-5 year window. In such a scenario, they should not make the deal.
Favouring this approach would show preference toward a long rebuild, but one that offers the organization an opportunity to solidify its infrastructure – internal prospects would have the chance to emerge – and compete for a lengthier tenure.
Without Luongo, the Leafs would obviously be less likely to make the playoffs this season and in the immediate future moving forward. The organization would hedge its bets in goal on James Reimer
, Ben Scrivens
and Jussi Rynnas
, gambling that one or more develops into a capable starting NHL netminder.
Decreasing their odds at the postseason this year would offer the club an opportunity to land a top pick in the 2013 NHL draft, a draft that includes potential cornerstones Seth Jones
and Nathan MacKinnon
. Snatching either one of the two, not to mention Aleksander Barkov, would be significant for the long-term future of the Leafs, an opportunity to inject a franchise-changing talent for the first time since Mats Sundin
. The club would then build around the trio of Gardiner, Rielly and said prospect with an eye toward now and later.
The long-term savings of not making the deal are also significant. Luongo has 10 years left on a contract that carries an annual cap hit of $5.3 million, hefty salary implications for a goaltender moving upward in age. Pocketing the extra $5.3 million in cap space annually, the Leafs could add even more this summer – notably boosting their defence – with just under $23 million to play with (again, more with any buyouts) amid a strong free agent class. Future flexibility would also remain intact with Phaneuf and Kessel set to become unrestricted free agents following the 2013-2014 season.
Ultimately, the deal comes down to an end-game.
Do the Leafs believe in their chances of becoming a Stanley Cup contender in the next five years? Or are they committed to a patient rebuild that could have long-lasting effects on the franchise?
The choice is more complex than it appears.