To trade or not to trade, that is the question facing Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis.
When Cory Schneider took over for No. 1 starter Roberto Luongo in last season's playoffs, it opened up the possibility that Luongo's time in Vancouver was coming to a close. That became a foregone conclusion when the 26-year-old Schneider signed a new three-year contract with the Canucks in July.
But Gillis was not in a rush to deal Luongo below value and then was forced to sit on the situation due to the lockout. That led to the Canucks opening the season with both goaltenders still on the roster, but it was Schneider who got the start on opening night.
If it was supposed to be the passing of the torch to the young Schneider, then the Massachusetts-born netminder fumbled the handoff worse than Liam Neeson's fictional attempt at improv comedy. He was drilled for five goals on just 14 shots and exited the 7-3 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 19 during the second period, replaced by Luongo.
Schneider sat the following night in favor of his elder teammate, a shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers, before ripping off wins in consecutive starts, including a 30-save revenge shutout of the Ducks on Jan. 25.
However, his third straight start did not go as well as he yielded four goals on 27 shots in a setback to the San Jose Sharks. He hasn't started since that Jan. 27 appearance, giving him a 2-2-0 record, 3.13 goals against average and .897 save percentage in his four outings.
Luongo, who it should be noted is in the third season of a 12-year contract, has made the last two starts and is slated to get a third in a row on Friday night versus the Chicago Blackhawks. The 33-year-old goes into that outing fresh off a 24-save shutout of the Colorado Avalanche and with a season record of 1-0-2 with a 1.61 GAA and .938 save percentage.
So what is the plan going forward for the Canucks? Is Gillis and head coach Alain Vigneault content to ride Luongo as long as he stays hot before finally trading him, or is management reconsidering dealing its aging and former No. 1?
The smart play by Gillis would be to hold on for Luongo for the rest of this 48-game season, continue to split time between his netminders, and readdress trading his current "backup" this upcoming offseason. Luongo will surly be motivated to play his best to entice another team to make him their starter, while Schneider may find his footing knowing that he can use this unusual season as a transition phase into the undisputed No. 1 role next season.
And, by showing a willingness to hold onto Luongo for the foreseeable future, Gillis also will assure a maximum return as he signals to other clubs he is not desperate to move his high-priced goalie.
That, of course, will put pressure on Vigneault to balance the playing time as he has done to date.
The Canucks bench boss isn't tipping what strategy he is using to decide who starts. Pressed for details on Thursday after saying he didn't want to go into the reasons why Luongo would get another start, he took a coin out of his pocket, flipped it and said "Louie" with a smile.
"We've got two great goaltenders. Both of them want to play. Both of them are professionals and great individuals. And (Friday) night, (Luongo) is playing," he added.
Vigneault, though, will have to keep an eye on the mental condition of each netminder should the duo share the starting role. Luongo admitted after his shutout on Wednesday that there are benefits to playing often, having posted his first win of the season two days after a shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings in which he gave up just two goals on 28 shots.
"I think I was able to build off of Monday," he said after the win. "Obviously the more you play, the more comfortable you feel. That goes without saying, but at the same time I think most of the work needs to be done in practice to be able to perform in a game."
And so it goes for a Canucks team facing the pressure. Vancouver still fancies itself a Cup contender despite a first-round exit last season following a seven-game loss in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins in 2011.
On the bright side, both Luongo and Schneider, as Vigneault pointed out, have been professionals about the whole ordeal. Schneider told the Vancouver Sun on Thursday that he knew losing the starting role was still a possibility when he signed his new contract.
"I don't feel bad for myself, I don't think anyone else does," he told the newspaper. "If you're going to sit there and pout about not playing, it's a little selfish. And I understand that you have to have the desire to play -- and I do, I want to play -- but at the same time, you can't put yourself ahead of 20 other guys trying to do the job."
And it's Gillis' job to sort this mess out, but smart money says that Luongo and Schneider stay in this thing together for the rest of the season.