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NHL Anaheim Ducks

How many games should Cory Schneider play?

At the beginning of the 2010/11 hockey season, much was made of the Vancouver Canucks’ announcement that backup netminder Cory Schneider would play about 25 games.

The plan was meant, of course, to a) reduce the workload of veteran starter Roberto Luongo, who appeared the tire at the end of most seasons in which he usually played 68+, and b) give Schneider, a genuine talent, more time to show what he could do on the NHL stage (and also, one presumes, showcase himself for a potential trade down the road).

And while Luongo did indeed play fewer games (60) than he ever had before as a starting goaltender (not including his injury-shortened 2008/09 campaign), he still carried the bulk of the mail for the team, and Alain Vigneault answered many a question from the media throughout the season about just how, exactly, Schneider was going to hit the 25-game mark when Luo was getting, it seemed, as much playing time as ever.

But sure enough, Schneider hit the 25-game mark, which was enough for him to get his name alongside Luongo’s on the team’s first-ever Jennings Trophy, which is given to the goalie(s) on the team that gives up the fewest goals-against during the season.

So it all worked out perfectly, right?

Well, some may argue it didn’t, because though Luongo didn’t seem to wear himself out by the end of March and early April, he did post a few stinkers during the playoffs; he was yanked in Game 6 of the first round against Chicago after two consecutive poor showings, and he famously got lit up in Boston during the Stanley Cup Finals, which queued up plenty of calls by finicky fans for Schneider to be the team’s  No. 1 going forward.

And while Luongo, Olympic gold-medal aside, has plenty of detractors who say he can’t win the big game in the playoffs, trading him away and giving the job to Schneider is likely not the right move. For starters, dealing Schneider, who has a friendlier salary and cap hit, is likely much easier than swapping out Luo’s 12-year contract. But financial terms notwithstanding, Luongo can still succeed in Vancouver with a continuation of the strategy the team employed last season: Give him more time off, but this time, in the playoffs, too.

Schneider played in 25 regular-season games last year, and saw action in 5 post-season games (mostly in relief of Luongo, save for his start in Game 6 vs. Chicago). But, as he’s proven himself more than capable, and could likely start for most teams in the NHL, why not bump the workload up another five games or so? Luongo, after all, is 32 years old now, and easing back on his workload can’t hurt.

Schneider is getting the start today in Columbus, only the second game of the season (and coming four days after Game 1, no less) so perhaps this is a good start.

But here’s the new wrinkle: give him playoff starts off, too. It only makes sense. If he struggles when he’s overworked in the regular season, why is it suddenly assumed he’ll excel playing every game in the post-season, playing games every second night, often with travel in between? Most teams, of course, are forced to ride their No. 1 in the playoffs because the games are too important to throw the backup into the mix, no matter how tired the workhorse starter may be. But the Canucks are in a unique position where they’re able to do just that, because the drop-off from Luongo to Schnieder isn’t as big as it is in most cities, when comparing the team’s top two goalies.

Granted, with Schnieder a restricted free-agent after the season, this is the year the Canucks likely have to deal the 25-year-old in order to get something for an valuable asset that likely won’t be back. So that throws the whole plan out of the window, right?

Well, in the playoffs, perhaps it does. But no matter the situation – not even if Schneider is traded tomorrow – the Canucks should still limit Luongo’s starts to around 52-55. Even without Schneider between the pipes in the non-Luongo games, the Canucks have the benefit this season of playing in a pretty weak Northwest Division in which they’re nearly guaranteed a division title (unless Calgary or Colorado surprises everyone). So even with, say Eddie Lack, replacing Schneider, the Canucks should stick to the plan. Because the regular season isn’t what it’s about anymore – it’s Stanley Cup or bust. So whether they win the President’s Trophy, or go into the post-season as a #3 seed, or even limp in as a 7 or 8 (again, very unlikely because they seem locks to win the Northwest), it doesn’t matter.

Everything the team does this season should be geared toward getting the team back to the Finals, and if that means starting Luongo less than ever, if that means giving Schneider (if he’s still here) starts in the playoffs, then so be it.

It’s been 41 years without a Stanley Cup for this franchise, so they should be willing to try whatever it takes to get it done.