Phase 1 of the Cory Schneider Plan is working perfectly.
It may be a year behind schedule, but the Vancouver Canucks are delighted with the performance of their young goaltender, who improved to 10-3-2 with a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday.
Schneider has developed into a trustworthy and frequently-used backup to Roberto Luongo, a hope the Canucks had a season ago when he failed to beat out veteran Andrew Raycroft in training camp, and spent a third season stonewalling the American Hockey League. On his best NHL nights this season, Schneider has stolen games, and flashed all the talent that made him a first-round draft pick in 2004.
Now comes Phase 2 of the Cory Schneider Plan, and the inevitable question: When should the Canucks cash in and trade him?
The betting money is not by the NHL's trade deadline on Feb. 28, though he would be an interesting piece - a dirt-cheap starter - if the Canucks are truly all-in for a Stanley Cup run. In any return this year, the Canucks would need a helpful skater and a safety-net goalie to cover for Schneider, just in case Luongo is injured between now and the end of the playoffs.
The rub is this: As much as Schneider may be at peak value right now, the market for goaltenders has been soft dating back to last year, and particularly last summer when free agents looking for big dollars were rudely awakened. Even those with Cup rings. Ask Antti Niemi, who found himself without a job after helping the Chicago Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup.
The Canucks got few nibbles on Schneider last summer, and none that they considered seriously. But at least one goaltender-of-the-future type has moved over the past three deadlines (Mike Smith to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008, Pascal Leclaire to the Ottawa Senators in 2009, and Kari Lehtonen to the Dallas Stars in 2010), and Vancouver's clock on Schneider is mostly certainly ticking.
He comes at a bargain cap-hit of $900,000 (U.S.) through next season and, under terms of the current collective agreement, would not become an unrestricted free agent until 2013. Complicating matters, he has restricted free agency after next year, and could be subject to a new agreement between the league and the NHL Players' Association. The current collective deal expires after next season.
Luongo remains a clear No. 1 with 11 years remaining on his contract and a no-trade clause, and so long as that stays the same, Schneider hits a ceiling.
Meanwhile, from below, rookie Eddie Lack is progressing far ahead of schedule in the AHL, showing signs that he could become the next Schneider in short order. The 23-year-old Swede is shining in his first season in North America, winning 18 of 33 games with 2.04 goals against average and a .928 save percentage
If Lack is not ready for NHL lights next season, Vancouver could easily find a stopgap option to bridge the gap to 2012-13. Either way, a young replacement is at hand and, if the return is fair, the time could be right to move the current No. 2.
A couple of years ago, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis drew a comparison to Smith, whom he represented in his days as a player agent.
Smith was 24 and had played 44 NHL games over two seasons with the Stars in relief of Marty Turco, before becoming the centrepiece in a deadline deal that netted Lightning centre Brad Richards. Schneider is 24 and has played 27 NHL games over parts of three seasons, and the Canucks don't have the cap space for a player like Richards. But the league leaders have a hot commodity who may never be hotter. And they have ample reason to be bold.