Trade to Panthers brings Luongo full circle

During the 2006 draft in Vancouver, British Columbia, then Canucks GM Dave Nonis pulled the trigger on what was one of the biggest deals in the team's history by acquiring netminder Roberto Luongo from the Florida Panthers.

It was early in the evening and it was a shocker, one that seemed to portend great things for the Canucks.

Almost eight years later the circle was brought to a close. After two years of emotional to-ing and fro-ing, Luongo was dealt Tuesday afternoon to the Panthers for netminder Jacob Markstrom and forward Shawn Matthias.

The deal comes two days after Vancouver head coach John Tortorella benched Luongo in favor of rookie Eddie Lack for the Heritage Classic "outdoor" game at B.C. Place, a move that angered the veteran netminder, although the reasoning may have had more to do with the impending deal than Lack’s strong play.

Of course Vancouver GM Mike Gillis spent most of last season trying to move Luongo and his massive contract -- he is locked up through 2021-22 with an annual cap hit of $5.33 million -- to no avail. He then switched gears and traded Cory Schneider, who had supplanted Luongo as the starter in Vancouver, to New Jersey at the 2013 draft.

But even though Luongo had reinherited his starting job with the Canucks, it was an uneasy repatriation, and with the Canucks looking to remake themselves by getting younger and shedding long-term deals, it really shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Luongo was finally on the move, even if many believed he would most likely be moved at the draft in June.

The move will give the Canucks a chance to find out if Lack, who leads all rookie netminders in save percentage and goals-against average, is ready to be an NHL starter. The move also suggests that the Canucks won’t be satisfied with just this move, that center Ryan Kesler, who has been the subject of much trade discussion the past week, could well be on the move by Wednesday afternoon as the Canucks continue to try to remake themselves on the fly.

The Luongo deal brings to a close an often ugly period for the Canucks, whose goaltending drama consumed the team for long periods of time.

In a matter of months, Vancouver has dealt two starting netminders for a first-round pick (Bo Horvat was selected ninth overall at last year’s draft), a goaltending prospect who has never measured up and a forward whose best NHL production was 14 goals.

But sometimes a deal like this can’t be measured in what is returned but rather what options it opens up for the Canucks in closing the door firmly on the team’s dysfunctional goaltending situation.

Of course, Florida has always been Luongo’s preferred destination given his wife’s family ties to South Florida. But this isn’t just about finally making a veteran goalie happy. This is a move that may be the one that sets the Panthers on the track to redemption.

The Cats made the playoffs in 2012, winning the Southeast Division, but lost in the first round to New Jersey in a seven-game series; had the Panthers had even average goaltending from Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen they would have won that series.

The team took a step backward last season in missing the playoffs, and it was clear that Markstrom, the 31st overall pick in 2008, was never going to evolve into the franchise netminder the Panthers had hoped for.

Enter Luongo. Or rather, re-enter Luongo. For the first time in years, the Panthers will have stability between the pipes to go along with a solid core of young players like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Erik Gudbranson and Quinton Howden.

The fact that the Panthers were able to get Vancouver to eat some of Luongo’s salary as well as take on Markstrom, who was under contract next season for $1.4 million ($1.2 million cap hit), is a bonus to the cost-conscious Panthers.

Although Florida GM Dale Tallon has often said he would like to have veteran Tim Thomas back next season, it’s hard to imagine that will happen now.

As for the dynamics, there is something richly circular about Luongo, who appeared to tweet a palm tree after the trade was announced, sharing space with Thomas at least for the time being.

The two faced each other in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, with Thomas outplaying Luongo through the seven-game set, during which Luongo famously wondered aloud why Thomas wasn’t giving him enough credit, to which Thomas, likewise famously, wondered if it was his job to pump Luongo’s tires.

Fun in the sun to be sure.

Tallon said the deal "came out of nowhere" and escalated quickly from a tire kicking exploratory phone call on Monday to a deal by Tuesday afternoon.

As things got serious, Tallon said he talked to ownership in Florida about whether he should pursue the deal and got the green light to take on the salary.

"We're excited about it. I think it's great for our franchise," Tallon said during a conference call Tuesday night.

"We're getting a great goaltender. A proven commodity. We needed to make a statement. Luongo’s numbers are terrific."

As for Luongo’s reaction, "he’s excited. He’s just over the moon about coming back to Florida," Tallon said.

The Florida GM said he’ll sit down and talk with Tim Thomas on Wednesday about how Thomas imagines his future with the team given the Luongo deal.

"We're going to do the best we can to make this work," Tallon said. "We'll see what direction it takes us," he said.