Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Are the Canucks better without Dan Cloutier?

When the news broke yesterday that the Vancouver Canucks would be without long-time starting netminder Dan Cloutier for the rest of the regular season, there was some of the predictable ‘aw, that’s gotta hurt’ responses from around the league.

But there was also something else.


You could hear them all the way here in Toronto, the epicentre of all things Maple Leafs. “Cloutier’s out? That might not be such a bad thing.”

Only one thing has dogged the 29-year-old ‘tender’s career more than the injury bug — he’s missed time in each of his five seasons in Vancouver — and that’s the notion that he’s not a ‘Big Game’ goaltender.

Of course, those outside of Vancouver remember Cloutier’s playoff woes mainly by Niklas Lidstrom’s long bomb from centre ice that beat him in 2002 — or, if you’re a Canucks fan: in April 21, 2002, with 25 seconds remaining in the second period with the Canucks holding a 2-0 advantage in the series. On the day before Cloutier’s 26th birthday, no less.

Playing for a Canucks team that has been a contender in the West the last two seasons, Cloutier’s play has been, for the most part, downright ugly in the postseason.

A 4.63 goals-against average in 2000-01 against Colorado. A 3.51 GAA the next season against Detroit. A slight dip to 3.24 in 14 games against St. Louis and Minnesota. And all these samplings come from the low-scoring, clutchy-grabby, pre-new NHL where three goals against might as well have been an L in the standings.

To be fair, Cloutier hasn’t exactly been backstopping a defensive powerhouse the past few seasons. And he was also solid in a low-scoring series with Calgary in 2003-04, before he was injured, leaving backup Johan Hedberg and then-rookie Alex Auld to play in a losing cause.

Cloutier’s legacy in a nutshell?

He’s been good in the regular season (three straight 30+ win seasons), awful in the playoffs and on injured reserve likely more than any other Canuck during his tenure there.

And the question remains: Are the Canucks better off without him?

Auld has been solid, if unspectacular, this season, but so far the 24 year old hasn’t shown he has the stamina to step right into the No. 1 role. Vancouver GM Dave Nonis did acquire Philadelphia/Washington castoff Maxime Ouellet on Dec. 2 to backup Auld, but Nonis has also left the cupboard otherwise bare beyond the two youngsters. That’s not nearly good enough for a team that’s currently on pace to win the difficult Northwest Division. At the very least, Cloutier offered an experienced hand that could guarantee his club a solid postseason berth. The same can’t be said for an Auld/Ouellet tandem.

Cloutier’s injury should force Nonis’s hand, but there’s talk he’ll wait until at least the Christmas break to reassess the team’s goaltending situation. Meanwhile, pundits are assembling their not-so-shortlists of potential replacement candidates that run the gamut from has-beens to the NHL elite.

Names being bandied about include:
  • Recent St. Louis waiver-wire castoff Patrick Lalime, a goalie with his own history of playoff woes.
  • One of Buffalo’s extra goalies, either the redhot Martin Biron or little-used Mika Noronen.
  • Florida’s Roberto Luongo, who has been the subject of rampant trade rumours following an ugly offseason contract dispute with hard-headed Panthers GM Mike Keenan.
  • Soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, Minnesota’s Manny Fernandez, who has been one of the league’s stingiest backstops for the struggling Wild.
  • New York Rangers Kevin Weekes, a former Canuck who has slunk into the shadows behind rookie phenom Henrik Lundqvist in the Big Apple.
I can’t see Luongo escaping Keenan’s grasp for anything less than a small fortune, something the Canucks can’t exactly afford to give up. There isn’t a stable of prospects to deal from in this organization, which probably means the big-ticket backstops are not in reach.

Noronen seems the most likely candidate, although he too has never had the starter’s reins.

It makes you wonder: Are the Canucks better off without Cloutier?

It’s hard to know until the playoffs.



At 8:41 p.m., December 14, 2005, Anonymous J&A said...

I love this "names bandied about" idea. Sure, Patrick Lalime is being "bandied about". (In the same way, I think, as "Dennis Potvin" is being "bandied about" in my email...)

Meaning, if Canucks GM Dave Nonis actually "bandies" Lalime's name in the Vancouver Media, they'll eat him alive.

Just saying...

At 9:02 p.m., December 14, 2005, Anonymous Robert Cleave said...

Vancouver's issue with getting Luongo or anyone else beyond a stop-gap is that they are tight on the cap, even with Cloutier's salary off the books. If they don't go into a tailspin, Nonis may ride it out until nearer the deadline.

As for Keenan wanting a lot for Luongo, every day that he gets closer to free agency diminshes Florida's leverage. The time to move him is right after the Christmas freeze ends. This is where the cap rears its head again. The teams that would probably like him most (Detroit, Colorado, Vancouver) are tight to the number, so just having adequate trade bait isn't enough.

As for your title question, short run probably no, long run yes. They weren't winning a Cup with him, so moving on is just as well.

At 2:28 a.m., December 15, 2005, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

One idea I heard thrown around, and I thought it at least warranted some thought, was bringing up Wade Flaherty and giving him a shot at the job.

He was apparently significantly better than Auld in the AHL last season and had some NHL seasoning.

He might just be the Mikka Kiprusoff for them.

At 2:34 a.m., December 15, 2005, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Two things about Flaherty:

1) He makes more than $75k in the AHL, meaning he'll have to pass through waivers on the way up. I also believe that, if another team was to claim him, Vancouver would be on the hook for half of his salary. It seems unlikely they'll take that risk.

2) Even if they do get Flaherty up, he turns 38 in January. He ain't the answer, unless that answer is another early playoff exit.

At 1:57 p.m., December 15, 2005, Blogger James Mirtle said...

The thing about Lalime, J&A, is that I think he's got a more likely chance of going to Vancouver than Luongo. Although, that's probably not something anyone in B.C. wants to hear.


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