Flashback to June 21st, 1997 at the NHL Entry Draft. An Islander team a few years removed from a great upset of the Pittsburgh Penguins spent its time in the basement of the NHL, with only 70 points on the season. The Islanders had received the Toronto Maple Leaf’s first round draft pick in a trade, which wound up being fourth overall. They choose the highly-touted goaltender Roberto Luongo. The Islanders, who seem to love making history in interesting ways, did so when he was chosen as the highest drafted goalie in NHL history at the time. The Islanders still hold this title– only the player himself is now somebody the fans know all too well– Rick Dipietro, who was taken first overall in 2000. Remember his name…
November 28th, 1999, Luongo made his NHL debut for the Islanders. He had an amazing 43 save performance against the Boston Bruins, winning 2-1. It only took him seven more games to reach another milestone, his first NHL shutout. Things seemed to be going well. Then what happened? Mike Milbury happened. At the NHL draft in 2000, the team picked goaltender Rick DiPietro first overall. This came as a huge surprise, given the fact that they already had an insanely talented young goalie in Luongo, and that they passed up on tremendous players such as Dany Heatley and Marion Gaborik. In the ex-GM-turned-NBC-analyst’s typical “win-now” fashion, he made one of the worst trades in NHL history. He flipped Luongo and future-star Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha, both players that never amounted to what Luongo/Jokinen did. The young goalie was caught off guard by the trade and expected his entire career on Long Island.
Luongo would be with the Panthers until 2006, and eventually find himself in Vancouver, where he still is to this day. Over that timespan, he has amassed tremendous career numbers and various NHL awards/nominations. He reached the Stanley Cup finals, where the Canucks lost in a heartbreaking game 7. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Rick DiPietro’s career would sing a very different song. He had star potential as well, but always relied on his athleticism a bit too much. It was only a matter of time before he got injured, but nobody could predict that it would be THIS bad. Surely to be in any Islander fans memory, that fateful game against the Montreal Canadiens in March of 2007 was the beginning of the end. In typical DP fashion, he came way out of his net to try to poke check a puck away from forward Steve Begin, and found himself concussed. The 2008 all-star skills competition saw his first of many hip injuries. I still remember him cursing over the mic on national TV when Marian Gaborik came in with speed on a breakaway. Since then, there’s been a huge string of injuries.
Then there was… THE CONTRACT. In 2006, he signed a 15 year, 67.5 million dollar contract. It would be genius if he had stayed healthy, but now is widely known as the worst contract in the entire league because of his inability to stay healthy and play well. In the past 6 years, he’s only started 50 games, and his play has gotten worse and worse, to the point this season that he was sent down to the AHL (although one could argue he belongs in the ECHL or a beer league). Luongo’s contract isn’t much better. On September 2nd, 2009, the Canucks announced that they signed him to a 12-year extension, worth 64 million dollars. The salary structure is important to note, as it is quite heavily front-loaded.
So, at this point in time, the Islanders have a huge contract buried in the minors for a goalie that simply cannot play at a high level anymore. The Canucks have a goalie with a huge contract who still plays at a very high level, but they don’t believe he’s their starter. That position would belong to Cory Schneider, as was confirmed by his new three-year deal. Luongo has stated that he would waive his no-trade-clause if the team asked him to.
It would seem there may be a deal to be made here between these two teams. And as reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie, the Islanders do have interest in bringing Luongo back and finishing this story full-circle. McKenzie said on TSN 1050 Toronto this evening, “Under the right circumstances, Roberto Luongo would be a great fit for the New York Islanders.” Why does this make more sense than meets the eye?
First, Charles Wang doesn’t have to buyout anybody at this time. He could finally be rid of the DiPietro fiasco, without committing to paying anybody for the next 16 years. Second, GM Garth Snow and the Islanders get a very good– perhaps elite– goalie, shoring up the position that they need help with the most. For Vancouver, they get rid of the Luongo fiasco. They get to focus on having their starter that they prefer in Schneider. They save a few million dollars on the buyout, as Luongo’s contract would cost slightly more to buy out. They also would most likely get a mid-round draft pick or a lower-echelon prospect.
From the Islanders perspective, I actually like this possibility. I still think I prefer young LA Kings goaltender Jonathan Bernier, just for the long-term implications. However, whoever has Bernier can only hope he becomes as good as Luongo is now. And Luongo will still probably be that good for at least 4 more years. In terms of the “horrific contract”, I believe that’s a bit overstated in the media. Currently, his salary is a bit above 6 million, with a 5.33 million dollar cap hit until his contract expires. He makes that 6+ million for 5 more years, which is a standard going rate for a very good starting goaltender. When Luongo turns 39, in 5 years, his contract will have 4 more years remaining and only a total of $7 million left. That’s very minuscule, especially in 2020 when the salary cap will probably be north of $70-$75 million, so a buyout wouldn’t be too awful.
It may seem like a joke that the Islanders would re-acquire Luongo. The goaltender himself had some hilarious insight on the possibility:
The Islanders are not the same team they were a long time ago under GM Mike Milbury. Current GM Garth Snow has shown (arguably too much) patience, so fans can be sure he won’t be giving up too much for Luongo. He’s still a great starting goalie that, if he starts 65 games for the team next year, most likely will lead them to a playoff berth. It actually makes more sense than one would think.