TORONTO - If not Roberto Luongo, then what for the Toronto Maple Leafs?
What makes the goaltending search of the next two months so fascinating is that the game within the game is a little like musical chairs. There are only so many goalies of quality available. The suitors are many, in Toronto, Chicago, Tampa, Columbus, maybe New Jersey, maybe San Jose, maybe Detroit.
And it has to begin with Luongo, who will be the best goaltender available at what one NHL executive described on Wednesday as “a crazy price.”
“Here’s how it will work with Luongo, the way I figure it,” the veteran executive said. “He has 10 years left on his contract but as a team you’d expect to buy out the final four years on the contract. That costs you around $5 million over eight years (actually $4.66 million). So, in essence, it’s like a back-ended bonus for acquiring Luongo. You’re paying $5 million just to get him.
“I don’t think Vancouver, under those circumstances, can get a lot in return for him because you’re taking that contract. And you probably have to dump some salary on them, too. So I think you can get Luongo for around an early draft pick like second rounder or prospect and the player they have to take back. I can see that as the price some teams are going to be willing to pay.”
Luongo, right now, is the No. 1 choice in the goaltending market in a year in which goaltending — aside from suspensions and Brendan Shanahan — has been the story of the Stanley Cup playoffs to date. The best teams aren’t winning. The best goalies are.
Luongo’s name is available as a long-term and expensive proposition. The best short term deal may come should Tim Thomas of Boston be available in a trade. Thomas is 38, coming off a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a White House snub, but he probably has a year or two left. Thomas would be more suited for a Chicago or a Detroit than Toronto because he would need to be on a contender.
The price for him may not be that high, either, and it makes some sense for the Leafs to look at the possibilities, especially if they believe James Reimer is the real thing and there is a genuine split in the organization between those who believe and those who do not.
The free agent goaltending class is spotty. The best buy, 27-year-old Josh Harding, could be the worst buy. Twenty-seven isn’t just his age it’s the number of games he’s usually healthy enough to play each year. He’s done nice work with the Minnesota Wild, but you can’t believe in a goalie who is forever banged up.
Next on the free agent list is Tomas Vokoun, who approached the Leafs a year ago, wanting to play in Toronto. He wound up selecting Washington over Detroit in the end, but had only an average year — but a goals against average at 2.51 and save percentage at .917 significantly better than anyone Toronto had in goal. Vokoun turns 36 in the summer. The Leafs have to consider whether they want a 36-year-old to be around to mentor Reimer and possibly Ben Scrivens.
Then there are those aside from Luongo who may be available in a trade. And here’s where it gets sticky for the Leafs. If they can get a goalie without injuring their roster, it may be the best way to go. Luongo would be expensive financially but not in terms of players lost. To pick up a Jonathan Bernier from Los Angeles or an Anders Lindback from Nashville won’t come cheap and there’s no certainty either of those backup goalies will be made available.
Bernier and Lindback are the equivalent of a backup quarterback. There are those who believe they will be excellent starting goaltenders on other teams and those who don’t agree. And the thing is, until they do it, nobody will really know. This is a difficult determination for the Leafs because a) the cost will be higher, roster wise; b) you can’t be entirely sure they are the answer to your needs.
Should Jaroslav Halak be available, via trade, he might fit the Leafs’ requirements for the short term. But after dealing third string goalie, Ben Bishop, to Ottawa, St. Louis might want to maintain the status quo in goal. A lot will depend on how far the Blues go in the playoffs.
The Leafs have made their list and prioritized their needs in goal. They’re just not sharing that information right now. But there could be more bidders than sellers, more questions than answers: Early July is not that far away.