ON THE EVE OF THE NHL’S ANNUAL FREE AGENT FRENZY, FORMER STANLEY CUP OPPONENTS ROBERTO LUONGO AND TIM THOMAS FIND THEMSELVES BACK IN THE NEWS FOR VERY DIFFERENT REASONS
At exactly noon today, thirty NHL General Managers will begin scrambling to sign as many free agents as their budgets will allow. It will make Christmas Eve in a Toys R Us pale by comparison. But before the onslaught of deals and ridiculous free agent signings gets under way, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a pair of goalies who’ve made news lately. Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas, whose goaltending duel went the full seven game distance in 2011’s Stanley Cup final, have attracted their fair share of headlines the past few days; Luongo for what hasn’t happened (a much needed change of address) and Thomas for what might happen (the 39 year old is interested in returning to the NHL after sitting out last season for personal reasons). Two very different goalies with very different stories back in the news for very different reasons.
Ever since the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks in 2011, an epic soap opera has been playing itself out in Vancouver as young goalie Cory Schneider seemed ready to assume the role as the Canucks top goalie, shoving long time starter Roberto Luongo aside. But the Canucks invested heavily in Luongo, signing him to a lucrative, twelve year deal that’s proven extremely difficult to move in a salary cap NHL. Yet, with few exceptions he’s been gracious and witty ever since the whole circus about his anticipated move from Vancouver started, garnering one of hockey’s largest Twitter followings in the process. Now, it seems, with the Canucks trading Schneider to the New Jersey Devils in last Sunday’s entry draft, Luongo is Vancouver’s number one net minder once more, whether he likes it or not.
While he has yet to win it, Luongo has been nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie four times. He finished runner up for the Hart Trophy in 2007 as the NHL’s MVP and backstopped Team Canada to Olympic gold in his own backyard during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He’s won 233 regular season games so far in a Canucks jersey and has collected 348 victories over the entirety of his career. At the age of 34, he’s assembled one of the most impressive resumes among active NHL goalies, but he just can’t seem to find any respect. Many Canuck fans (and indeed the franchise itself) unfairly threw him under the bus for the Canucks Stanley Cup loss to the Bruins in 2011, and many more hockey fans won’t even cut him a break for his gold medal winning performance in 2010, telling anyone who’ll listen that he was a benefactor of playing on a stacked team. In point of fact, many of Roberto’s online haters have taken to social media, boasting that they can’t wait until he allows first soft goal next October, their mockery machines already tuned up and primed.
Anyone who watched 2011’s Vancouver-Boston final knows that the Canucks lost to a Bruins team that was tailor made for the trench warfare of the playoffs and could tell you there was plenty of blame for the Canucks loss to go around. Vancouver’s big guns fell silent and what little firepower they mustered was easily dismissed by Boston’s Tim Thomas, an eventual Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophy winner that season. In fact, if it wasn’t for Vancouver’s goaltending, they could have been tossed aside by the Bruins in only five or six games. Has Luongo given up some soft goals over his career? Sure, but so has Corey Crawford, Chicago’s goalie who just picked up his second Stanley Cup ring a few weeks ago and whose played himself into the conversation to man Canada’s net at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Speaking of the Olympics, while Canada’s hockey entry at any Olympics is always going to be stacked, you need capable goaltending to compliment all the other talent. A stacked team in front of you doesn’t guarantee Olympic success; you could have asked Patrick Roy that in 1998 or Martin Brodeur in 2006, years when Canada’s stacked Olympic squads didn’t even medal, let alone take home the gold. Dismissing Luongo’s Olympic success in 2010 is nothing more than a fool’s move.
When Vancouver GM Mike Gillis made last Sunday’s trade, he confessed he hadn’t spoken to Luongo, who had all but been promised a new team next season. Gillis said he planned on reaching out to Roberto, indicating that he’s aware that bridge is pretty shaky, if not burnt entirely (TSN later reported that a shocked and disappointed Luongo was declining interview requests). But Vancouver’s GM may want to avoid speaking publicly about this mess because one hundred percent of it is his fault. He was the one who offered Luongo the contract that has been an albatross around both their necks, he sabotaged a number of potential deals with various trading partners over the past two seasons by hiking his asking price and he couldn’t convince Canucks ownership to use a compliance buyout to sever Luongo’s deal after telling the media that Bobby Lou probably wasn’t returning next October (which must have been music to Luongo’s ears). One image sums up how the relationship between the star goalie and Vancouver had deteriorated better than anything else. Vancouver’s final regular season game last season was a road game against the Edmonton Oilers. Luongo was started to rest Schneider, signaling to the entire NHL that Vancouver now considered Schneider their playoff goalie. The Canucks rested a lot of their top players that game and their squad resembled an AHL team more than their regular lineup. Edmonton, on the wrong side of yet another losing season, lit the Canucks up and head coach Alain Vigneault wouldn’t even look at his former starter, let alone pull him and save him additional embarrassment. Luongo was the first Canuck off the ice and was showered, changed and headed to the Canucks bus, alone, in just twelve minutes. Now the Canucks want to kiss and make up. Kind of makes you think Luongo just might skip training camp . . .
And speaking of skipping training camp, remember Mr. Thomas? It might be tough because he’s been off the radar over the course of his year long vacation to focus on his three Fs; family, friends and faith. Tim Thomas was an outstanding goalie who earned every accolade and award he received. A virtual unknown before 2005, the story goes that then Boston Bruin Joe Thornton convinced Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli to take a look at a goalie (Thomas) he played with in Finland during the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. Chiarelli liked what he saw and brought Thomas over, whose unorthodox but stellar play quickly earned him the Bruins number one job. Thomas won the Vezina for the NHL’s best goaltender in 2009 and again in 2011, the same year he also won the Conn Smythe for backstopping the Bruins to the Stanley Cup. He won silver in the 2010 Olympics with team U.S.A. and he hopes to be considered for America’s entry in the upcoming 2014 Olympic games as well. His resume speaks volumes. So does the fact he turned his back on his team its fans.
When Thomas informed Bruins management last year that he planned on sitting out the 2012-13 season, he wasn’t merely violating his contract, but he was turning his back on the Bruins organization who had rescued him from obscurity in Finland and the fans who embraced him. His decision was particularly difficult for the Bruins, who, despite suspending him so they wouldn’t have to pay him while he sat out, were forced to absorb his contract’s value against their salary cap. If they hadn’t been able to pawn it off on an Islanders team desperate to reach the NHL’s salary floor, the Bruins would have essentially been up the salary cap creek this past season. Thomas also generated some controversy when he passed on Boston’s visit to the White House to celebrate its Stanley Cup victory and again when he posted conservative political statements on his personal Facebook page. While I didn’t agree with those decisions (or statements), I defended them as free speech (which doesn’t only count when you like what the person says), but his decision to abandon the Bruins was stabbing the organization that made him a Stanley Cup winner and millionaire in the back. What he did wasn’t all that different from what Alexei Yashin made a habit of doing to the Ottawa Senators in the 90’s, sitting out a contractually obligated year because he wanted more money (Thomas didn’t want a raise, just a paid vacation). At the very least, he owed an explanation to his teammates, his organization and his fans, who paid his enormous salary by buying obscenely expensive tickets and over priced merchandise. If it had been a sick relative or other family emergency, Boston is a classy town and a classy organization, they would have thanked him and given him his privacy, but Bruins fans deserved something one way or another. The bottom line is his decision was selfish and disrespectful.
So now you have a pair of goalies in painfully opposite situations. Roberto Luongo, whose team turned its back on him but wants him back, and Tim Thomas, who turned his back on his team and its fans and wants to come back. This should be interesting.