When Roberto Luongo learned he wouldn’t be starting the Heritage Classic, the disappointed goaltender asked agent Pat Brisson to call Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis just to get a read on his future.
When Gillis gave Brisson permission to seek out a potential trade partner for the goalie and his massive contract, the attention turned quickly to the Panthers — and not just because Luongo calls South Florida home.
“It had to be a hockey move,” Brisson said. “Roberto wants to play, wants to win. He wants to compete and win. ... When Roberto asked me, I said, ‘I do believe that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for (the Panthers),“’ Brisson said. “I do believe there’s a place where this team is going to go in the right direction.”
While the Canucks head in the direction of a rebuild, the Panthers look like a team on the upward climb thanks to new owner Vinny Viola and a cadre of young prospects GM Dale Tallon has assembled in the NHL’s southernmost market. Through two games with his new team, Luongo has already caught a glimpse of what he and many hockey people believe is a bright future for the Panthers.
Luongo sees potential stars in Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and a handful more young players around the locker-room. At 34 years old, he wants to contribute to the revival of the franchise rather than riding coattails.
“It’s all about making a commitment to bringing some people in and trying to build a winner,” Luongo said Sunday night after facing the Boston Bruins. “That’s what it’s all about for me. I’m not here to fade into the sunset. I want to be part of something special coming here.”
Something special in the short term might just mean making the playoffs after missing in 11 of the past 12 seasons. Even as the Panthers head toward another early off-season, Bjugstad hopes it’s just “growing pains” as part of an important learning experience.
That’s to be expected for a team whose top players include 18-year-old Aleksander Barkov, 20-year-old Huberdeau, and 22-year-old Erik Gudbranson. Players were on a bus in Boston when they found out Luongo was coming and represented something of a safety valve for mistakes of youth.
“Any time you can have a solid goaltender behind you, it gives you confidence that you can make some plays,” said 20-year-old forward Vincent Trocheck, who made his Panthers debut the same game Luongo returned. “If you do make a mistake, you know that he’s back there to save your butt, basically.”
Yet in the larger scope, Luongo is not being asked to save a franchise by himself. It is, however, Tallon’s hope that trading for him “sets the tone” for the organization.
The message of taking on the final eight-plus years and over US$28 million of Luongo’s contract was that the Panthers are willing to spend. Hours after making the move, Tallon said it was about making good on all the talk about wanting to win a Stanley Cup because “talk is cheap.”
Doing so could be expensive, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Florida has a better chance of winning a Cup in the next four or five years than Vancouver.
“You never know,” Luongo said. “It’s tough to say. You hope so. That’s why I’m here. I think the pieces are definitely here, just a matter of making sure that we bring the right piece to complement these young guys that are talented and they’re going to be stars in this league.”
Tallon has a plan. After already taking the goaltending gamble that was Jacob Markstrom out of the equation and getting Luongo, he has his sights set on signing, drafting or trading for two power wingers to support Barkov, Huberdeau, Bjugstad and Trocheck. The Panthers’ payroll is the lowest in the league at just over US$50 million, but with Viola in charge, Tallon expects to be “a cap team or close to a cap team” next season.
Having almost $30 million of cap space could help the Panthers continue down the path to being a contender, but it also helps to have Luongo as a salesman and a symbol of the club’s all-out push to get better.
“It’s hard to recruit anybody if they don’t think you’re doing the right thing,” Tallon said. “I think the commitment of making that deal and the commitment that Vinny Viola’s going to make ... will really influence a lot of decisions as far as players wanting to come here, seeing that we’re really committed to winning.”
Luongo didn’t keep close tabs on the Panthers’ rebuild while he was playing for the Canucks because he didn’t expect to get traded, let alone back to Florida. But Brisson, who just negotiated a two-year extension for winger Brad Boyes, had a good sense of what was happening.
New ownership meant a new opportunity for Luongo.
“If it was back to the former ownership where they weren’t sure what they wanted to spend, what they wanted to do, I wouldn’t have recommended it at the time — absolutely not,” Brisson said. “If you look at good ownership and willingness to spend and the right chef, so to speak, the right cook in the kitchen, it’s an attractive place for Roberto and the players that are there.”
Tallon is that chef, and he has quite the recipe on his resume. Even though Stan Bowman was the general manager when the Blackhawks won the 2010 Stanley Cup, Tallon orchestrated much of the turnaround in Chicago.
“It went well for them,” Bjugstad said. “That’s kind of what we’re banking on.”
For every Blackhawks success story there’s another example like the Edmonton Oilers, who are set to miss the playoffs for the eighth straight season despite three straight No. 1 picks and six in the top 10. They provide a cautionary tale for the Panthers, even as Tallon rattles off prospect after prospect who could make a difference.
Each one of those young, unproven players represents essentially a raffle ticket for Florida, another chance to hit it big. But there’s plenty of risk and uncertainty in that.
“Obviously we’ve got to prove ourselves before we can get too excited,” Bjugstad said. “There’s a ways to go.”
In Luongo, the young Panthers get a goalie who is already established. Even if his play is not Vezina Trophy-calibre, he could instill plenty of confidence on and off the ice.
“I think maybe as more of an experienced guy in the locker-room to bring whatever I have learned over the years and maybe help them out along the way as far as just being a pro and all that kind of stuff to help their development,” Luongo said.
That team-wide development and progression toward a playoff team is still in the “early” stages, according to Tallon. Luongo’s addition speeds it up, but there’s still no set goal on when he figures the Panthers will get over the hump.
“I don’t put numbers on that,” he said. “I just let the players start to develop and see when they’re ready to make a real hit on the team as far as moving forward. And when they all come together as a group, as a team, not just in a group of individuals, that’s when you pretty well know when you’ve got something special.”