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Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo sits on the ice with the puck in his glove after making a break-away save on Chicago Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp in the first period during Game 6 of their NHL Western Conference semi-final hockey game in Vancouver, British Columbia May 11, 2010. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)
Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo sits on the ice with the puck in his glove after making a break-away save on Chicago Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp in the first period during Game 6 of their NHL Western Conference semi-final hockey game in Vancouver, British Columbia May 11, 2010. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)

MATTHEW SEKERES

Luongo's contract on the chopping block may be blessing in disguise Add to ...

The immediate reaction is arbitrator Richard Bloch dropped a potential mess on the Vancouver Canucks' doorstep Monday with his explosive ruling that goaltender Roberto Luongo's contract could be retroactively voided.

Canucks general manager Mike Gillis is not commenting on the decision at the NHL's request, but you have to wonder whether he smiled wryly when Bloch tossed out Ilya Kovalchuk's record-breaking deal with the New Jersey Devils. That 17-year, $102-million (all currencies U.S.) deal is similar to Luongo's 12-year, $64 million contract, and the latter remains under league investigation "with at least the possibility of a subsequent withdrawal of the registration," Bloch wrote.

The league would have to move quickly to revoke Luongo's deal - the regular season starts on Oct. 7 - but in that unlikely event, hitting the re-start button could benefit the Canucks in the long-term, particularly if Luongo's play continues to slip. There are at least two benefits if Luongo's deal is scuttled, albeit both would come after some short-term pain.

For starters, the Canucks would not be chained to Luongo, and could feasibly reallocate their resources well before 2021-22, when his current deal expires. Second, it creates an environment where top goaltending prospect Cory Schneider could reasonably unseat Luongo.

That remains remote today, because while the Canucks would like Schneider to push Luongo, they know full well that Schneider would eventually have to go should he prove capable of starting. Luongo has a no-trade clause, so if he's outplayed, he will either be a very expensive backup, or the Canucks can demote him to the minors if they want to escape his cap hit.

Those aren't comfortable subjects for Canucks management, which has been reticent to admit mistakes, but a chance to re-do his deal could be a useful tool.

If Luongo's contract is voided, the immediate aftermath would be untidy, because the team would have to secure his services with a new deal, and with limited space under the NHL's $59.4-million spending limit. Any new agreement would likely be valued at more than $5.33-million per season, Luongo's annual cap hit, and would likely be much shorter because the length of the deal and its frontloaded structure designed to bring down the average annual salary, which caught Bloch's eye.

"[Luongo]has a 12-year agreement that will end when he is 43," he wrote. "After averaging some $7,000,000 per year for the first nine years of the agreement, Luongo will receive an average of about $1.2-million during his last three years, amounting to some 5.7 per cent of the total compensation during that time period."

But Luongo's contract certainly looked better last summer, before a middling 2009-10 season and another postseason disappointment, and if it's thrown out, it would take the Canucks off the hook for $10-million this season and the 12-year commitment.

That's important because the Chicago Blackhawks again ended the Canucks playoff drive in a barrage of goals this spring, winning a second-round Western Conference series in six games with a 5-1 victory on May 11. The previous season, Chicago broke Vancouver's dreams with 7-5 triumph in a decisive playoff game.

This year, the Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup backstopped by Antti Niemi, an unheralded Finnish rookie who was making $826,000. That provided further evidence that in the NHL's capped system, teams do not require big-money goalies to win championships.

Kovalchuk's and Luongo's contracts do have differences that might validate the latter when the investigation is complete.

Luongo does not have a no-movement clause, unlike Kovalchuk, who was guaranteed a roster spot until the final five years of the contract, when the annual compensation drops dramatically to $550,000. Bloch ruled that Kovalchuk's compensation in those seasons would amount to less than the NHL's minimum salary at that point, but that is a much more difficult argument to make with Luongo, who will earn $1 million in the final two years of his pact.

There is also the fact goalies typically have longer careers than skaters such as Kovalchuk.

Add it all up, and it seems Luongo's deal will eventually pass muster. But if not, all is not the lost for the Canucks.

In fact, they could be handed a mulligan on their most errant tee shot to date.



 

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