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The Globe and Mail

Despite an ace in his hand, Gillis keeps card close to chest

The Vancouver Canucks have given president and general manager Mike Gillis a contract extension. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck


It approached high noon in Las Vegas on Wednesday, the thermometer soaring towards 40 C, and Mike Gillis still had a somewhat-tattered ace in his hand: Roberto Luongo.

"A lot of a different teams talk to us about a lot of different scenarios involving a lot of different people," said Gillis, general manager and president of the Vancouver Canucks, on Wednesday morning in an interview with Team 1040, the club's official radio broadcaster.

"We're in a position where we can listen, and that's what we're doing."

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Gillis, in Las Vegas for the National Hockey League confab this week, heads to Pittsburgh for this weekend's draft trying to beat down expectations of some sort of great blockbuster move for his ace. He suggested on Wednesday, as he has before in the past month, that the amount of trade action at the draft could be quiet rather than riotous – adding that his sense is that trades are more likely to unfold later in the summer, after the very thin free-agent rodeo.

From a Canucks perspective, patience at the poker table is a plus. Each day that passes, Luongo's uncertain trade value seems to incrementally increase, as teams that need a boost in net make their moves. Conventional wisdom, which so quickly coalesces in the chatter around hockey, seems to point to Toronto, the same conventional wisdom that has declared a Luongo-Cory Schneider duo back in Vancouver this fall as untenable, impossible, crazy and/or stupid.

But even with an ace in his hand, Gillis doesn't seem to have much leverage. It would be fairly humiliating to hand off Luongo with little/nothing in return. And it is unclear how having Luongo still on the Vancouver payroll affects work to re-sign backup-turned-playoff-starter Schneider. Does the goaltender--in-ascendance balk without a full-on commitment to make him the starter?

All said, however, if conventional wisdom is right, Vancouver's goaltending next year likely could be weaker than it was last season. Schneider starting, backed up by 24-year-old Swede Eddie Lack (zero NHL games/starts) doesn't look like a better situation than Luongo backed up by Schneider – even if one believes Schneider is the better long-term bet than Luongo.

Then there is the spectre of a big offer sheet for Schneider, one the Canucks of course could match, which Gillis has insisted he would – but the team would then suddenly have upwards of $10-million (all currency U.S.) of goaltending on the roster. Offer sheets are rare but don't put it past Brian Burke, that cagey, craggy veteran desperate for a netminder, to make a run at Schneider. Luongo might end up being the consolation prize for Toronto, as the Leafs force the Canucks to pay up for Schneider and his, to date, 68 NHL starts.

As for any Schneider action in Pittsburgh, Gillis said Wednesday of the goaltender's agent, Mike Liut, "I'm sure we'll run into him this weekend."

Vancouver doesn't have a lot of cap room to work with, though the team does have all its primary pieces, save for Schneider, signed. Canucks fans might dream of Ryan Suter, the Nashville D-man, though it is hard to see how Vancouver could outmanoeuvre the likes of Detroit on that front. The team's quietly stated dream is Nashville's other big D-man, Shea Weber, who grew up in the B.C. Interior and is an unrestricted free agent after next season.

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The most immediate good news on the defensive front could be Justin Schultz, another product of the B.C. Interior, drafted four years ago by Anaheim, who blossomed at the University of Wisconsin and, as of July 1, possibly/likely becomes a free agent. The Canucks need another top-four defenceman and Schultz could well plug the hole while daydreams of Weber go unfulfilled.

Schultz, of course, will be heavily courted, given the extremely thin crop of available talent. He turns 22 on July 6. Gillis, Vancouver fans may hope, probably has a reasonable shot to net the kid, given his work to turn Vancouver into a top destination for hockey players looking for a new home.

The other gaping hole in the Canucks lineup is at centre. No. 2 centre Ryan Kesler is out until November, a month after the season is scheduled to start (though the likely/possible delayed opening of the 2012-13 campaign could be a lucky salve for Vancouver). There is, now, no third-line centre with the departure of Samme Pahlsson to Sweden. Brought in to bolster a playoff run, but doing little on that front, Pahlsson was an unrestricted free agent who the Canucks showed little-to-no interest in resigning. Canucks fans, some of them at least, are still daydreaming, Where are you Cody Hodgson, wanderings of the mind that will only be excised when Zack Kassian scores 30 goals.

In other new news on Wednesday, word floated out that the Canucks' No. 1 pick this time last year, the now 19-year-old Dane Nicklas Jensen, wants to play in Sweden next year, if he doesn't make the NHL, after scoring a point-a-game in junior for the Oshawa Generals last winter. Gillis told Team 1040 he supported the idea in general, in the name of career development for a 6-foot-2, 202-pound left winger who Gillis believes can be a "big time" player.

In one last other bit of new news Wednesday, Gillis let it be known that he likes the look of the NHL schedule for 2012-13, at least the draft of it he saw. The official calendar comes out Thursday, for what it's worth, since the betting in Vegas, and everywhere, is that October's not going to happen. And maybe that's more Canucks luck. Gillis said it is the best schedule, for travel, that Vancouver's had since he arrived in town in 2008, and the worst road trip is in October, the NHL's 2012-13 ghost month. But perhaps luck cuts the other way for the Canucks with a new schedule for a shortened season, one where games are crammed in, and the travel demands are rougher rather than easier.

Lastly, the draft. Even though Gillis has done his public bit to douse talk of draft-day action, perhaps he tries to play his somewhat-tattered ace to swing something of a big move. Or not. Vancouver, the Presidents' Trophy winner, picks 26th, which will remind some of 2004, when an 18-year-old goaltender named Cory was picked 26th in the first round.

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