If Mason Raymond’s season was a novel, it wouldn’t be on the bestseller list yet. But the first few chapters have provided both enough intrigue to draw the readers in and enough action that they wouldn’t want to put the book down without finding out how the story ends.
A month into the new National Hockey League season, the speedy winger has been one of the biggest surprises on the Vancouver Canucks. With five goals in his first 14 games, Raymond is showing flashes of the player who scored a career-high 25 times in the 2009-10 season.
And it’s the way he’s scoring that is perhaps the surest sign that this is a different player than he was a year ago, when he struggled to regain any sort of form following a serious back injury suffered in the third game of the 2011 Stanley Cup final.
The 27-year-old is being given the opportunity to be a difference maker, as he was in the late stages of the February 17 game against the St. Louis Blues. Down a goal with less than two minutes to play, the Canucks expected results when they turned to Raymond on a late power play.
In recent seasons, it’s unlikely the Cochrane, Alberta, native would have been part of the power-play mix with the team trailing and needing a spark. In fact, in the 125 games he has played over the previous two seasons, Raymond had produced a grand total of three power-play markers. But, pouncing on a rebound against the Blues, Raymond came through for the Canucks with his team-leading fourth power-play goal already this season.
“I’m getting more power-play time, so that obviously helps, and last year was last year—I don’t want to dwell on that,” he told the Georgia Straight in the locker room after the St. Louis game at Rogers Arena. “This is a new season; I’m feeling good right now, and that’s how it is.”
The most noticeable difference in Raymond’s game this season is confidence and the willingness to battle. Since he broke into the NHL in 2007, Raymond’s skating ability and speed have been undeniable. But far too often, he stayed to the outside and failed to create anything off the rush once he hit the opponent’s blueline.
This season, he’s taking pucks to the net and finding ways to stay there, too. There is far more purpose to his game and that is reflected in his point totals.
“He’s battling harder,” Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault says. “He’s staying on his feet more. He’s going to the tough areas where you need to go to score goals, and he’s competing one on one. When he does that, he creates room for himself and for his teammates.”
Perhaps it’s the fact it’s a contract year or the fact that the Canucks took Raymond to arbitration last summer, seeking to reduce his salary following back-to-back disappointing seasons. Whatever the motivation, it seems to have had the desired effect—at least in the early going.
The challenge now is for Raymond to show that he can keep his performance at a consistently high level and continue to put pucks in the net. With a condensed schedule and plenty of travel, the road will only get tougher as the season unfolds.
And, ultimately, Raymond needs to prove that he can be a valuable contributor in the playoffs, where he failed to score a goal in five games against Los Angeles last spring and had just two goals in 24 games before getting hurt against Boston in the Canucks’ run to the final.
Playoff hockey is a nightly grind where time and space are limited and brute force often rules the day. That’s not the way Raymond plays the game; however, the time will come when he has to show he can adapt and produce to help the Canucks get to where they want to go.
But Raymond can’t prove his playoff worth until the postseason rolls around, so for now he just has to continue to develop his game and make sure there’s no slippage after his strong start.
He seems to have found a rhythm with rookie centre Jordan Schroeder and Jannik Hansen on a line that can back defenders off because all three can fly.
“I find we’re similar players and we’re looking for each other—that’s the biggest thing,” Raymond says, explaining the chemistry on the line. “Henrik and Daniel [Sedin], for example, they use each other. They’re great individual players, but when you use each other and you use your other linemates, that’s when you’re successful. And that’s what we’re doing and that’s what I have to continue to do to have success.”
And the more success he has, the more likely it will be that Raymond continues to get power-play opportunities to help the hockey club. It’s been a while, but there are expectations on Raymond these days. And so far, he’s giving the Canucks what they need.
“Special teams are a huge part of this game, and I think this is the best our second unit has been in a long, long time,” he says of a power-play group that can take some of the pressure off the Sedins. “We’ve continuously had the same guys out there and we’re starting to read and react off each other. When you know where guys are going to be, it becomes second nature to know where the puck needs to go.”
For a while, Raymond seemed to have lost the offensive instincts that had served him well in recent years. But right now he seems to have turned the page on his scoring struggles and is authoring a surprising story in the early going this season.