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Cage Match: who is the better fantasy own - Roberto Luongo or Cory Schnieder?

 

 

 

The 2013 NHL Entry Draft came and went without many fireworks. Seth Jones dropping to the fourth pick was an intriguing development but the lone true shocker was the Canucks’ trade sending Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils for the ninth overall selection. There are plenty of angles to take in discussing that deal but this is Cage Match so there is really only one that matters now – who is better, Schneider or Roberto Luongo?

 

Goalies are always tough to assess because pure talent is only half the story. It takes an incredible amount of situational luck to create a great fantasy netminder. If this were just about pure talent I would have to side with Schneider.

 

Schneider is bigger, younger and more technically sound. He’s a replica of what works in today’s NHL, which is protecting the bottom of the net at all costs using great length and flexibility, while also using size along with an extensive knowledge of angles to block as much of the net as possible. This isn’t to say that Schneider doesn’t have solid athleticism and reflexes and general skills but the simple fact is that on most shots he has played the odds as best he can. In other words, he’s a safe goalie but he has the rebound control, instincts and athleticism to be an elite starter. The only question is whether or not he can bring that over an 82-game season.

 

Schneider may not yet get that chance. With Brodeur still in tow and indicating that so long as he feels good he will be back the Devils will be compelled to keep Brodeur around and keep him active. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The days of the everyday 70-games-a-year starter are over. Goaltending is too demanding. Starters need rest and they need help. Schneider has proven that for short stretches he can run as the full time starter. Asking him to play too many games may be a stretch at this point.

 

If by chance Brodeur gets asked to ride in the backseat while Schneider takes the reigns full time then we will have some questions to ask about Schneider’s durability but until that point we can probably count on Schneider to be at his peak level in terms of readiness.

 

The only issue is whether or not the team in front of Schneider will help him reach his peak performance. There are serious questions to be asked about the Devils’ organization and their ability to field a truly competitive team over the next few years. The franchise is potentially in dire straits financially, so their ability to spend enough to field a proper team is in question. Of course, teams (the Devils included) have competed in the past despite an internal budget so team finances alone cannot be considered enough to write off these Devils.

 

What could write them off is a serious lack of talent in the system. The team has already lost their franchise player and former captain Zach Parise and could be facing more losses in free agency this summer. Losing top players to free agency does open up cap space, which could be spent to acquire new talent but one cannot assume that there is anything resembling a lineup of players looking to land in New Jersey. So this summer, with long time Devils Patrick Elias and David Clarkson looking at unrestricted free agency, the Devils could be looking at a crippling exodus of talent.

That exodus is, I suppose, why the Devils handed Travis Zajac a fat check this winter rather than see him join his (former) teammates in free agency but for a team facing financial issues that’s a hefty salary to hand out to a non-star.

 

Of course, Ilya Kovalchuk is a Devil for life, having sold his soul to circumvent the cap so there is some talent remaining in New Jersey. But the prospect cupboards are bare from years of misfires and future selling deals. Add in Adam Larsson’s sputtering development, the cause for alarm with last summer’s first rounder, using this year’s first rounder to acquire Schneider and losing next summer’s first rounder as part of the penalty for Kovalchuk’s cap-circumventing deal and the Devils really look like a hurting unit going forward.

 

But we’ve declared the Devils dead before only to watch them make a surprise run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Summer has literally just begun and technically speaking NHL summer fun doesn’t begin until Friday. This team could be completely remade. With one swift move the Devils went from having a goaltending duo that would have looked sharp in the 90’s to having one of the best young starters in the league. Big changes can happen overnight. Right now, however, it does not look good. With all due respect to Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, I’m just not sure he has any more aces in the hole.

 

The Devils have remained a solid defensive team over the past few years and they could certainly maintain that identity but it’s hard to see how they are going to win very many games with little scoring punch to speak of as is and more talent potentially leaving. Schneider will most likely put up some solid peripheral stats as he has done over the course of his NHL career (Schneider boasts a career 2.20 GAA and 0.927 save percentage) but racking up win totals may prove beyond his capabilities. These are no longer the high scoring Canucks in front of him and the opposition he is facing will be far stiffer than the Northwest Division opponents he has feasted on these past few years. (For the record, Schneider’s split stats while better against Northwest Division opponents are still very impressive against non-divisional opponents.)

 

Schneider will steal games for the Devils. That’s what top goaltenders do but he’ll also be hung out to dry on many an occasion. The Devils just don’t appear to have enough talent to drive Schneider to the superstar levels he might have reached had he stuck in Vancouver.

 

Luongo will remain in Vancouver, we presume, but that is one hell of a messy situation. I’ve really come to respect Luongo through this trying situation. He’s been funny and honest but he’s also too emotional. Some goaltenders, like Tim Thomas for instance, use their emotions to rise to another level. Some don’t display any at all. Luongo’s emotions let him down. When he loses it, he’s done. I don’t know how he will get into the right mindset to play at an elite level in Vancouver next season. He still has the talent to do so but he’s going to really have to focus.

 

Part of why Luongo can come unravelled so easily is because he’s something of a relic as a goaltender. While he is actually taller than Schneider he does not appear bigger in his net. He relies more on athleticism and feel to tend net. When you are “in the zone” this sort of goaltending can work just fine but when you lose focus or get in a funk it can be tough to snap out of it because there is less of a fundamental base to drop back on. Add onto that the fact that as Luongo has gotten older (he’s 34 years old now) his athleticism has started to fade. This has resulted in him tinkering a lot with his style and mechanics over the past few years. I think he still has enough in him to be great but he’s got to be in the right mindset and he’s going to need as much support from everyone in his life to help him do so. That includes teammates, coaches (really anyone in the Canucks organization) and of course the media. Luongo is THE GUY now. He’s been THE GUY before and that’s been up and down. Now he’s THE GUY again – for better or for worse – so deal with it and get behind him. I don’t have much faith on that front. The Vancouver market is so ruthless it’s almost cruel but if you want to believe in Luongo you have to believe he’s getting support on all fronts and that that will continue even once the first bit of adversity hits.

 

What will be interesting to see is how Vancouver goes about improving. This was still one of the best teams in the Western Conference this season but it’s clear they are trending downward. They need an influx of talent. This summer offers some opportunity, especially with Schneider’s cap hit now off the books. The Canucks don’t have too much cap space just yet but they’ll be up around the $8 million mark once they buyout Keith Ballard. They have a ton of roster spots to fill however and not too many intriguing prospects coming up the pipeline. How they spend their limited funds this summer will be crucial to deciding just how competitive they will be next season.

 

Of course, one of the Canucks’ biggest moves this summer was trading coaches with the New York Rangers, bringing in the demanding John Tortorella. Tortorella brings the fire and brimstone that the Canucks look as though they may need to maximize their performance but only time will tell just exactly what that will mean in terms of team style. We know that in New York Tortorella was famous for demanding an excruciating amount of blocked shots out of his team as part of an overall defensive-minded strategy but I like to think of Tortorella as more than just a “system coach”. I like to think of him as a “good coach”, which means strategizing based on the talent available. The Canucks may not turn black and blue warriors overnight but if they did would that even be a good thing for Luongo.

 

I’ve long felt that Luongo looked to be his best when under fire. His best years were in Florida behind terrible Panthers teams and in his first couple years in Vancouver behind some mediocre Canucks teams. He’s just better when he’s seeing a ton of pucks. This comes back to his goaltending more by instinct than pure technique. When he’s grooving, he’s grooving. If Tortorella comes in demanding the Dikembe Mutombo from his guys then Luongo isn’t going to get much chance to get into a groove. I felt this had a similar impact on Henrik Lundqvist. While Lundqvist’s numbers were the best of his career during Tortorella’s tenure in New York, Lundqvist was also prone to letting in a number of soft goals seemingly because he wasn’t as into the action as he would like.

 

I’m not certain how all of this would play out for Luongo but Luongo already has something of a propensity for softies and he’s definitely not in Lundqvist’s class any more so I’d hate to see Tortorella have a negative impact simply by mandating more blocked shots. But again, even with the soft goals considered, Lundqvist had the best seasons of his career under Tortorella – you can’t ignore that. Nor can you ignore that Nikolai Khabibulin also had the best stretch of his career under Tortorella in Tampa Bay. Perhaps that’s just a random occurrence but I want to give Tortorella the benefit of the doubt because I think he’s a good coach.

 

The Canucks have been a top 10 team in goals against each of the past three seasons though so it will be tough to improve on that. Schneider, of course, was a big part of that having started a third of those games and put up better numbers than Luongo doing so. Luongo will need to step up, receive help or a little of both if his personal numbers are going to improve.

 

The Canucks will also likely need to make improvements defensively simply to maintain their previous standards because they will be facing stiffer competition next season. The creampuff Northwest Division is no more. Yes, the Oilers and Flames will still be mainstays on the Canucks’ schedule but the likes of San Jose and Los Angeles – teams that have bounced them handily in the first round each of the past two seasons – will offer much stiffer competition throughout the year.

 

So the Canucks and Luongo will have to be at their best. They will have to improve. Increasing Luongo’s workload could help. He’s thrived as a workhorse before so increasing his game action could help him regain his confidence. It could also put him at greater risk of injury, especially at his age. The Canucks should have a capable backup in either Eddie Lack or Joacim Eriksson to spell Luongo however much he needs, without being a thorn in the side the way Schneider was but only time will tell for sure. But the Canucks should certainly still be a playoff team, which is more we can say for Schneider’s Devils.

 

What does this all mean? Well we can’t know for certain until we see how each team uses the rest of the summer to fill out their roster but right now Luongo has the better team so in a league that scores only wins, he’s probably your guy. Beyond that however, Schneider is better. We can’t know for certain that he is capable of doing so for 60+ starts in a season but you’ve got to take a leap of faith. It’s similar to Tuukka Rask not being a proven starter for 60+ games. I suppose even after this year Rask still technically isn’t but he pretty much proved that he was. I expect Schneider to do the same. He’s technically sound and mentally strong. He can make the adjustment. He’s also younger than Luongo so you don’t have to worry about his skills rapidly deteriorating over the next couple of seasons. I hope I’m wrong. I want to see Luongo succeed but I see Schneider as the better goalie at this point and I have to side with talent over situation.

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