On one side, a young goaltender who has always been affable and diligent, never complaining about his extended apprenticeship, the lack of ice time. When called upon, he always delivered.
On the other side, a veteran who helped take a mediocre team to the brink of a Stanley Cup, a goaltender whose numbers rank among history’s best but, last spring, found himself benched and, nearly nine months later, still has no new home.
The entwined saga of the Vancouver Canucks’ Roberto Luongo, 33, and Cory Schneider, 26, is one of hockey’s great stories after the lockout, an extended tale whose final chapter will be told in the next week, though it could stretch weeks more.
Schneider has waited years for this moment, to be the starter on an NHL team. Luongo, after a tremendous decade-plus in hockey, rides out an ignominious purgatory. Luongo could well arrive in Vancouver this weekend as training camps open if Canucks president Mike Gillis has not worked out the biggest deal to be made as the truncated season begins.
The possible destinations for Luongo remain a swirl of speculation, and technically teams cannot talk trade until the labour deal is ratified. The likeliest location still seems to be Toronto, and a report Tuesday buoyed that idea, with the Maple Leafs saying no to the Los Angeles Kings, who are evidently shopping their backup, Jonathan Bernier. Other destinations such as Chicago and Columbus appear unlikely, and a Florida trade would be tough given that the Panthers have offered nothing the Canucks want. An outside possibility is Edmonton, which could use an ace in net and have players to move.
So as rumours churn, reality in Vancouver on Tuesday saw Schneider back in the city and working out with teammates. Just returned from Europe on Monday night, the Luongo questions poured forth.
Schneider was anointed starter last April in the playoffs, a humiliating moment for Luongo, yet the two, who are friends, could find themselves together again.
In Schneider’s answers, there was the underlying presumption Luongo is not long for Vancouver and soon will be elsewhere, though maybe not by the weekend, so there was diplomacy, too, when asked who is the Canucks’ starting goaltender.
“As I’ve always viewed it, the best guy will play,” Schneider said. “There’s worse things in the world than having a world-class goalie pushing you and forcing you to be at your best. Like I said, Roberto and I have dealt with this for two years now, we’re not unfamiliar with it, the scrutiny, the pressure, whatever you guys want to call it. We respect each other.”
Luongo concurred. In his @strombone1 guise on Twitter, Luongo chimed in, after Schneider’s quotation was posted, stating: “+1.”
While it is presumed Luongo is gone, the Canucks have a hole without him. It is hard to imagine Schneider plus a new backup will be better than Luongo-Schneider, a duo that almost single-handedly carried Vancouver for much of last season. But who will be the backup? There aren’t many options out there.
Schneider’s sojourn in Switzerland during the lockout was up and down. He started strong but was also weak, such as in the Spengler Cup semi-final, when Canada smoked Schneider for four goals on 31 shots, which led to the hook midway through the third period. On the other side of the ice, Edmonton’s Devan Dubnyk gave up one goal on 26 shots (as backup Bernier looked on).
“I was trying to push myself to be my best and unfortunately I don’t think I was, and that’s on me,” Schneider said. “But you know what, I have no concerns about it, coming back here, I’m ready to go.”
Looking back, Schneider said part of the reason he was so strong – 36-12 in two seasons, with a .933 save percentage – was in part because he had ample time to work with goaltending coach Roland Melanson and prepare for starts. Schneider said his Swiss experience was invaluable, as he wouldn’t have felt good jumping into the NHL regular season cold, and is now poised to work with Melanson over the abbreviated training camp to “hammer out the details.”
“There’s just a different electricity in the air,” Schneider said. “I’m hoping that come game time that I’ll be ready to step up and take that next step. We’ve all been waiting for a long time.”