November 22 2011 03:00PM
Canucks speedster Mason Raymond has worked himself nearly all the way back from a broken back that he suffered in game six of last June's Stanley Cup Final. He's been cleared for contact, and though the team is scattershot about the exact date of his return, he should make his 2011-12 debut soon. While we don't know exactly when he'll be back in the lineup (I doubt he plays tomorrow in Denver), his imminent return will almost certainly provide the team with a boost. But how much of one?
While we're all excited for Mason Raymond to have made it back after such a gruesome injury, where exactly does he fit in on the current team? With the addition of David Booth and Cody Hodgson - are there enough minutes to go around? Let's take a closer look:
In practice yesterday the Canucks were rolling lines that looked like this: The Sedin twins with Burrows, Kesler with Booth and Raymond, The "Suck It Line" (Hansen-Higgins-Hodgson) and an interesting fourth line of Lapierre with Malhotra and Dale Weise. Assuming that Mason Raymond hasn't lost a step, that would give the Canucks as deep a forward group as they've had since the Brian Burke/Marc Crawford era.
In practice today, the Canucks lines looked a bit different. Burrows was skating with the twins again, meaning the Hansen-Sedin-Sedin experiment may well be over, and Vigneault had Higgins skating with Kesler and Booth, while Hodgson centered Malhotra and Hansen (Raymond alternated), and he kept the usual fourth line in tact. Based on these line combos, we can safely assume that it will take a while ye fort Raymond to make it back into the lineup, but that when he does he will likely join the second line (probably on the right side). My reasoning? Monday's practice lines were about planning of the medium term, where as today's lines were more concerned with tomorrow night's game.
We all know that Vigneault operates in pairs, with the right-wingers playing a rover role and moving up and down the lineup. I'll be curious to see which one of Raymond or Booth is paired with Kesler more permanently, and which one is used as the rover. Based on the fact that Raymond has played the right side more frequently in his career than Booth has, I suspect that Raymond will be the "swing man" on this line.
This speaks to one of Raymond's best assets as a player: his versatility. Last season he lined up mostly at left-wing, but when Samuelsson bumped up to play with the twins, he'd slide over to the right-side without any discernible impact on his effectiveness. When Malhotra went down, and before Vigneault was convinced of Lapierre's suitability as a top-9 player, Raymond played as the team's third-line center and played pretty well in that role in the Chicago series (albeit in sheltered minutes). While Raymond will surely not line up at center at any point this season (the Canucks are carrying five centermen on their roster this year) the fact that he can slot in on any forward line in any position, should prove very useful over the balance of this season.
While Raymond drew a lot of criticism last year (undeservedly in my opinion) for his "perimeter play" and "lack of finish" - he has proven to be a bonafide top-6 forward over the course of his three most recent NHL seasons. While the percentages went against him last campaign, Raymond generated 197 shots over 70 games, well over 2.5 shots per game. If he'd shot his career average, (9.4% as opposed to the 7.6% clip he did shoot at) that would've been good for 19 goals.
Considering the cratered percentages, the adjustment to Raymond's role last season (far fewer power-play opportunities in particular), and the fact that he was nagged by lingering injuries throughout, he had a reasonably productive season. Certainly his possession numbers were fantastic.
If Raymond hasn't lost a step, he's a valuable forward, with solid playmaking instincts and a history of "chemistry" with Ryan Kesler. The prospect of Raymond playing with Booth and Kesler is tantalizing (albeit frustrating, as many Canucks fans are simply convinced that Raymond and Booth are just bad finishers) because of the speed that group would possess. When Kesler really finds his game, which, I still think will happen at some point in the next few weeks, that line will be a matchup nightmare for nearly every NHL team's second defensive pairing.
I'm not sure where Raymond fits in on the power-play this season. With Booth still struggling to find his game, and more well-suited to a net-presence role than the slight of framed Raymond, I'd wager he retains his spot on the second unit. With how good Chris Higgins has been at lighting the lamp, and Hodgson a fixture at center, where is Raymond's spot on the second unit power-play?
Simply put, it doesn't really exist. While, Raymond isn't an elite point producer on the man-advantage by any means, he's a crafty offensive player, and when given the opportunity has produced on the power-play (18 power-play points in 09-10). We've also seen Raymond deployed at the point on the power-play in the past, and once Aaron Rome's hot-hand cools off somewhat, I'd assume that Raymond makes for a better fit on the 2nd unit than Rome does. If he doesn't line-up at the point, however, there may not be enough power-play minutes to go around, and Raymond may find himself the odd-man out.
The Penalty Kill
Raymond is a solid two-way forward, and in the past has been regularly relied upon to kill penalties. His speed is disruptive and his positioning is solid, so he is a good penalty-killing option. In 09-10 he was 4th among Canucks forwards in short-handed ice-time, while last season he was the "5th" penalty killing forward (usually lining up with Tanner Glass, and averaging just over a minute of short-handed ice-time per game).
This season the Canucks penalty kill has been reasonably good, killing off 85% of all opposition power-plays, despite a really slow start. It seems to me that the six penalty killing forwards are probably set, and I'd be surprised if Malhotra, Higgins, Hansen, Kesler, Lapierre or Burrows are displaced by Raymond's return to the lineup.
I'm not sure what the solution is either Mason.
With all these questions about Raymond's role, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him play even fewer minutes than he did last season. In 09-10 Raymond received over 17 minutes of ice-time per game, last year he was down under 16 minutes per game. If Mason Raymond jumps around the lineup and has trouble getting on the ice in special teams situations, I wouldn't be surprised to see him fall below 14 minutes of ice-time per game.
In no way is Raymond's return to the lineup some sort of "saving grace" for a club that has been results challenged and inconsistent through the first quarter of the season. We're all rooting for Raymond after what must have been an arduous summer of rehabilitation, and I'm excited to see him back on the ice. But the fact remains: it's likely he will play a limited role on this years club - even once he gets back to full speed.