Mason Raymond’s return to form this season has been equal parts impressive and overlooked.
The speedy winger had a very tough 2011-12 season, finishing with only 10 goals and 20 points in 55 games. Many in Vancouver were ready to run Raymond out of town last summer, and the Canucks elected to take the former 25-goal scorer to cut-down arbitration (a rarely-used tactic that allows teams the opportunity to lower the salary of restricted free agents).
Suffice to say Raymond had a lot of work to do to prove himself once again as a top-six NHL forward. And through the first half of the 2013 season, he has done just that.
Raymond took the road less travelled on his way to the NHL. Unlike most talented young hockey players from Alberta, he didn’t play in the WHL. Instead, Raymond played for the Camrose Kodiaks of AJHL (Junior A). Raymond dominated at that level, but some NHL teams were scared off on draft day because they didn’t think he could do the same against better competition.
The Canucks were one team that wasn’t scared away. In fact, they coveted Raymond enough to discuss moving up in the draft to land him.
Raymond proceeded to play two years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, teaming up with fellow Canuck Jason Garrison. In his first season as a Bulldog, Raymond was named to the league’s all-rookie team along with a few other guys you may have heard of – Jonathan Toews and Phil Kessel.
Raymond didn’t need much time at the AHL level to prepare himself for the speed of the NHL (conversely, the NHL probably had to prepare itself for Raymond’s speed). He played only 33 regular season games with the Manitoba Moose over two seasons before becoming a full-time Canuck. Raymond’s development mirrored his skating ability – lightning-fast.
In his second full season with the Canucks, Raymond lit the lamp 25 times. He was really starting to harness his speed and skill to make plays on a more consistent basis. Being a great skater is an important part of making it in the NHL, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. Raymond was well on his way to figuring the rest of his game out.
Raymond was expected to take a step forward towards the 30-goal mark in 2011-12.
However, improvement from year-to-year is never a guarantee. His goal production dropped from 25 to 15 (in 12 less games, mind you).
Was Raymond’s declining production because his level of play had dropped as well?
The Canucks hired Newell Brown as an assistant coach in the summer of 2010, and one of the first changes he made was with the power play. Instead of splitting the ice time evenly among two units, Brown decided to load up one unit and give them the bulk of the minutes. Raymond was one of the players who saw his power play ice time cut (from 2:04 per game to just 1:22 per game). And for an offensive player, that usually leads to a decrease in production.
There is much more than meets the eye with a sport like hockey. So many factors are in play with regards to player performance. Raymond’s production was down, but his overall contributions to the team were not.
In 2011-12, Raymond led all Canucks skaters in shots for per 60 minutes (essentially the team generated the most shots per 60 minutes whenever Raymond was on the ice relative to any other player) and he had the fewest shots allowed per 60 minutes on the team, as well. He was generating offense while concurrently preventing it better than any other Canuck.
Raymond had 35 even strength points and 18 power play points in 2009-10. In 2010-11, he finished with 32 even strength points, but added only six on the man advantage. The argument could be made that Raymond was just as effective offensively, and his production decline was due to the decreased power play ice time.
Everything changed on June 13th, 2011. Raymond suffered a catastrophic back injury in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins, and the timetable for a return was unknown. His future as a hockey player was very much in doubt. Raymond was unable to train for much of that summer, as he was locked into a restrictive back brace until July. And after that, he wasn’t able to lift heavy weights for a while either.
For a hockey-mad market that focuses so much on the health of the Canuck players, it is a mystery as to why Raymond’s injury and tough rehabilitation process was largely forgotten about as he worked through scoring issues in 2011-12. Imagine having to play against the best players in the world after suffering a broken back and not being able to train or work out at the appropriate intensity for four or five months?
Raymond also bounced around the lineup much more in 2011-12 relative to the previous two seasons. After playing primarily with Kesler and Mikael Samuelsson from 2009 to 2011, Raymond saw his linemates change with much greater frequency. His most common linemates were David Booth and Kesler, and he only played with them 16 percent of the time. Chemistry is important, and Raymond really didn’t have that last year. It didn’t help that Kesler was dealing with his own injury recovery as well.
After last season ended in disappointment, Raymond’s future with the Canucks was far from a guarantee. As a restricted free agent the club still held his rights, and they elected to take him to arbitration. Mike Gillis issued a challenge to Raymond to improve his performance.
“If you are asking me 'are we going to give up on Mason Raymond?' the answer is no. But Mason is going to have to make a step now that he wasn't able to make this year returning from that [back] injury. He knows it and we know it and he'll be evaluated on that basis moving forward.”
It is always interesting to see how players are perceived by fans. That perception is made up from many things – how they play, how the media portrays them, and their hit against the salary cap, among other factors. Raymond was a fan favourite during his first few years in the league – he was still on his rookie contract, there weren’t a ton of expectations, and he was fun to watch.
After he scored 25 goals and earned a two-year, $5.1 million contract, fans expected more from him. And when Raymond failed to deliver 25 goals again, perceptions quickly changed. It didn’t matter that his overall impact to the team was still very positive despite decreased offensive opportunities, people just focused on the goals and assists.
And in 2011-12, the fact that he was still recovering from a significant and serious injury was neglected. It was quite obvious that Raymond’s strength wasn’t where it had been in past years – he wasn’t winning as many puck battles, and he didn’t have the same confidence with the puck on his stick. It may have taken him five months to get back to playing, but if you were to ask Raymond it probably took a lot longer than that for him to feel like himself.
It is often said that people show their true character in their toughest hour. Raymond suffered an unimaginably painful injury, and he persevered through it. Back in 2005, his Junior A coach shared some thoughts on Raymond, who at the time was largely an unknown to Canuck fans.
His coach’s comments are more relevant than ever now with what Raymond has gone through over the past two years.
"Everyone knows Mason has skill, can score and can turn on a dime, but he also has the heart and the character. He took quite a beating physically in that series and got up and kept coming back. I think that's what sold [the Canucks] on Mason - they saw what a competitor he is."
Raymond still has a lot to prove. To himself and Canuck fans, that he can be a difference maker in the NHL. And to Canucks management, that he is deserving of a new contract.
So far so good on both accounts.
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