(or Why I Like a Lack of Goaltending)
–by Tyson Michie
I can remember the first time I saw him. It was in Penticton, BC and I was in the stands for the Vancouver Canucks training camp. As the players, mostly young NHL hopefuls, poured onto the ice, one stood head and shoulders above them all. He looked like a man among boys, like Gulliver in Lilliput…like Zdeno Chara anywhere. It was hard not to notice Eddie Lack that day. The 6’4″ goaltender towered over pretty much everyone on the ice, coaches and all. Once the scrimmage started, it was impossible not to notice him. I became an Eddie Lack fan that day, because I realized I was looking at the future of the Canucks, and it looked good.
At the time, the Canucks were sporting two #1 goaltenders in Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. There wasn’t enough room in the crease for the goalies the big club already had, let alone this monster of a kid. I won’t go through all the details, but as we know by the end of last year there was not only room for Lack, but he became the defacto starting goaltender after both Schneider and Luongo had been traded. Lack put up a valiant effort down the stretch, but proved he wasn’t ready to be an NHL starter.
Since then, new management has come in and one of the first things they did was demote Lack to backup by signing star goaltender Ryan Miller. With Miller signed to a 3 year deal, a lot of people think Eddie Lack’s days as a Canuck are numbered. With many people seeing him as a starting caliber goaltender within 2 years of Miller’s contract. They see this as a problem. I do not, though I understand why it’s easy to see this as a potential problem. The Luongo/Schneider saga is still fresh in our minds, and we’re watching a similar situation unfold in Toronto between Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. As weird as it sounds, no one wants two #1 goaltenders. I don’t disagree with that, and I don’t disagree that Eddie Lack will be an NHL starter long before Ryan Miller’s contract is up. In fact, I think he may be there already.
What does it take to be a successful starting goaltender in Vancouver? First and foremost, mental toughness and maturity. Does Edie Lack have that?
Eddie doesn’t just have a personality naturally conducive to being a Canucks goaltender, he also has the experience. He was playing for the Canucks’ farm team, the Manitoba Moose, during the 2010-11 season in which the Canucks dominated the league and fans showered Luongo with praise. He was around to watch everyone turn on Luongo during and after the Cup Final loss to Boston. He was also around to see Luongo get everyone back on his side and how he did it. He watched two fan favourite #1 goalies get run out of town and stayed to take over. He then came back this season as a better player to a lower position, and seems more than happy to do it. Is he mentally tough enough for Vancouver?
I’d say so.
Is Eddie Lack’s play good enough to be a starter? So close, but not quite. At the beginning of the season, Ryan Miller was leading the league in wins, and Eddie Lack was 0-3. He played well, but couldn’t seem to close out a game. Whether his fault or not, goals against in the third period seemed to be the theme for Lack’s first few games. The same could be said of him last season, and it was looking like he was still a backup. A good backup, but a backup nonetheless. His next game he earned a win, holding the Anaheim Ducks to just one second period goal in a 2-1 shootout win. At the time of this writing, Lack’s record sits at 6-7-2, with a .917 save percentage and 2.47 goals against average. Those aren’t fantastic numbers, but in the last few games, I’ve noticed something. Against New Jersey, the only 3rd period goal was Mike Cammalleri’s empty net tally. In Lack’s previous outing, a matchup against the Minnesota Wild, Lack allowed one goal in the third period, which still left the Canucks with a 3-2 lead and eventual victory. The game before that was a high scoring affair against Chicago which did see the puck behind Lack several times in the third, including a bit of a soft one by Marian Hossa to tie the game in the final minute. Regardless, it was just one of those games against he Hawks. The point is his late game play is getting better, and really, the only thing that’s going to improve his play at this point is game time.
So Lack has the personality, mental toughness, and ability to be a #1 goaltender, not just in the NHL, but in Vancouver. Miller is still signed for another two years though. You don’t trade an elite goalie like Miller ever, right?
Well, who fared better over the long-term, Buffalo or St. Louis?
In the trade that sent Ryan Miller to the St. Louis Blues, he was joined by forward Steve Ott in return for goaltender Jaroslav Halak, forward Chris Stewart, 2 draft picks (including a first rounder this year) and a prospect. The Sabres turned around and, the very next day, traded Halak and a third round pick for goaltender Michael Neuvirth, and defenseman Rostislav Klesla. Klesla refused to report to the team, but as Buffalo starts a hard rebuild, Chris Stewart looks to bring a big return at this year’s trade deadline while Neuvirth is their starting goaltender and that first round pick, if lower than the one they acquired from the Islanders, could be what got them star forward Evander Kane from the Winnipeg Jets. St. Louis let Ryan Miller walk, getting nothing in return for him, while Steve Ott is still a member of the team. Meanwhile, that trade seems to be what has set up Buffalo to be very successful in just a few years. Do you trade a goalie like Miller? Sure. If Patrick Roy can get traded, why not?
And that’s the thing. Everyone is looking at Lack as the tradebait. Why are we not looking at Miller as the tradebait? Nothing against him, he’s a world-class goaltender, but he’s not ours. He doesn’t feel like a Canuck. McLean felt like ours. So did Luongo, from the minute he arrived. Schneider felt like ours. Even Dan Cloutier felt like ours and Lack does too. Miller just doesn’t. Miller feels like he’s resetting himself for the second part of his career and, while I’m happy to have him do it here, win us some games, and groom Lack a little along the way, it isn’t a long-term solution for this team. Eddie Lack is.
The Sabres traded Ryan Miller and they have a potentially bright future because of it. The Blues let him walk and have nothing to show for his time there. Which group would you rather be in, current standings aside? I’m not saying trade him now or this summer. I’m saying split next season between him and Lack, with Miller carrying the slightly heavier game load, then trade him and his reasonable contract next summer. If you’re going to trade any goaltender this year, trade Markstrom. He’s ready for the NHL as a backup at least, and he doesn’t want to wait another year.
If the Canucks want to settle their goaltending, giving the team as a whole a better chance to succeed, this needs to be a team that Lacks in goaltending.