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Cox: Toronto only logical destination for Roberto Luongo

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By Damien CoxSports Columnist

Another day, another goalie locked up.

While Josh Harding may not be a well-known puckstopper, or one of particular note, he’s likely to come close to splitting the workload in Minnesota this season with Nicklas Backstrom, and so the Wild have locked him up with a three-year deal.

Harding, along with Anders Lindback, Cory Schneider and Jonathan Bernier, was viewed as a young backup netminder who might be able to become a starter elsewhere. Now Harding is signed, Lindback has been traded to Tampa, Bernier may stay in L.A. for the time being until Jonathan Quick is locked up long term and Schneider, most believe, will be the unchallenged as the No. 1 goalie of the Vancouver Canucks when the next NHL season begins.

If there were a plethora of teams anxious to upgrade in goal, that would create a nice situation for Canucks GM Mike Gillis in his efforts to move veteran goaler Roberto Luongo and his ridiculous contract, which still has 10 years left to run.

Except there aren’t many teams looking to upgrade. Indeed, unless Ondrej Pavelec flees to the KHL and leaves the Winnipeg Jets in the lurch, only two teams seem to be seriously prowling for a starter in the crease, the Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Even then, the money-losing Blue Jackets aren’t likely to be interested in Luongo and his massive contract, while Luongo, with a no-movement clause he can still exercise, isn’t likely to be too excited about Columbus.

Which leaves the Leafs as the only destination. Chicago? Most GMs don’t think the Hawks are looking, and why would the Canucks move Luongo to a conference rival? Florida? They have Jose Theodore and hot prospect Jacob Markstrom, and dicey ownership in south Florida makes it unlikely the Panthers would want to absorb that contract with $46.8 million still to pay, including $40.3 million cash in the next six years.

If Luongo were, say, like Backstrom with only one year left at $6 million on his contract, this would be an entirely different situation.

But that’s not the case. Moreover, the Leafs are interested, that’s clear, but not wildly so. Certainly not wildly enough to give up quality players or prospects to get him and take on that contract, just as they had no interest in shipping Luke Schenn or Jake Gardiner to the Oilers to get the No. 1 pick in Friday’s entry draft.

Now, the Leafs don’t have many options at this point, either, which is about all that gives Gillis any real leverage when talks between the two teams get really serious. That’s probably not going to happen, by the way, until Gillis gets Schneider locked up with a new contract. So for now, the Vancouver GM can try to make it appear he has multiple suitors and significant offers, but nobody is going to believe him. For the most part, however, Gillis is staying quiet and making himself scarce, which is probably smart.

If the Leafs could get a deal they like, they’d do it today. But that doesn’t appear likely.

So what you have is a team with an ultra-expensive goalie for sale and few suitors, and a team intent on improving in net to get out of non-playoff hell with few other substantial options.

Rock, meet hard place.

This is all complicated, to some degree, by the low-level animosity that exists between the two organizations, nothing compared to the high-level animosity that exists between their fan bases, with most of the hate there directed from Vancouver to Toronto.

With regard to the teams themselves, Brian Burke and Dave Nonis have long histories on the Lower Mainland, and the way in which Gillis assumed power with the Canucks while Nonis was ushered out the door has never sat well with many in hockey. The relationship worsened several years ago with Vancouver’s absurd tampering charges aimed at Burke, and very little business has gone on between the Leafs and ’Nucks in recent seasons.

Still, both teams can get around this if they can get a deal they want. Gillis needs to find a way to make it at least appear he’s not giving Luongo away, or more accurately, only receiving relief from his contract in return.

Burke has more flexibility, more wiggle room. To get it done, he can give up more than he strictly has to. It won’t be Schenn or Gardiner, but he could give up a lesser youngster. If the Canucks will take a contract back, say Mike Komisarek’s, the quality of that prospect might get better.

All in all, this is a doable deal as long as Vancouver doesn’t overestimate what it should get and the Leafs don’t squeeze the Canucks overly because there’s no market for Luongo.

They can help each other, in other words. Both might have to grit their teeth while doing so, but that’s business.

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Harding made a smart move signing in Minnesota. His best option was Tampa Bay until the Lindback trade.

The Canucks may be waiting to see if their is a buyout. I'm not sure though if they could buy him out and still keep him.

Kind of a cat and mouse game.

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