Let’s sweep that loss to Columbus under the rug. I woke up strangely sick Monday morning and wasn’t myself, so I can’t blame the Leafs for putting together such a stagnant effort against Columbus. The beauty of an 82-game season is that a 6-0 loss in November counts the same as a 3-1 loss once all is said and done, and the reality is that teams don’t really dwell on losses as much as they’re perceived to. After a 7-0 defeat at home to Washington earlier this season, all Philadelphia did was win the next game 4-0, then lost consecutive games, then won three straight… almost as if games are independent of the last ones.
I want to talk about Mason Raymond.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have had two forwards this year play all 24 games: Phil Kessel and Mason Raymond. Towards the end of the summer, the Leafs had five legitimate wingers and a wide-open spot on the third line. No way was Frazer McLaren or Colton Orr going to be bumped up, and was Tyler Biggs or Josh Leivo ready to step in for a full-time NHL job?
Imagine had Raymond signed somewhere else before the Leafs training camp started. The Leafs would need to find 24 more man-games. Perhaps 11 of those go to the capable Carter Ashton, but that also means more games for Troy Bodie, Josh Leivo, David Broll… perpetual bottom six players getting looks in the top six every night. If you think the Leafs have suffered with injuries now, picture a Leafs squad without Raymond.
The differences in players are absurdly marginal at the NHL-level. Raymond hurt his back in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final and there’s enough data to indicate that after sustaining that injury, he was a different player. Still, in those two half-seasons he played, he was 185th in the NHL in points-per-game. With 180 top six forwards in the NHL (6 forwards times 30 teams) Raymond was just a point behind. The difference between him and a first line player was one point every four games, and the difference between him and the 135th highest-scoring forward (the cut-off for an above average second line player) was a point every eight games.
Luck can have a significant impact on a player, whether it’s health, a matter of getting the bounces to set up chances, or a matter of those pucks finding their way through goaltenders. Raymond was one of the unluckiest players the Canucks dressed between the fall of 2010 and the spring of 2013. After a 25-goal season, expectations for not only Raymond, but all future second-line players in Vancouver, were warped, and after losing much of his powerplay time and seeing his shooting percentage drop from 11.5% to 7.6%, Raymond scored just 15 goals. Despite a gluttony of chances during the playoff run, he only scored twice. Despite coming back from a devastating injury midway through the 2011-2012 season, he was given no more chances from the Vancouver crowd.
First off, I want to commend the signing. Taking a low risk on Mason Raymond for just a year, given what he’s accomplished in the past, is the right move. He’s a good player to have in the lineup and solves the discrepancy on the Leafs’ third line left wing. Although I have him up on the second line to start the season, because, well, yeah.
Essentially, the potential reward outstripped the risk. Raymond this season is third on the Maple Leafs in goals, second in points, fourth in shots on goal, and has taken just three minor penalties and drawn four. He has the fifth highest CF% Rel on the team at +3.2% as the Leafs do a much better job generating shots on goal with Raymond on the ice than off. With Raymond on the ice, the Leafs have earned 45.2% of the shot attempts (out-shot 290-352) but without, they have been out-shot 606-839, with just a 41.9% share of the shots. (via Extra Skater)
Right now the Maple Leafs are coasting, with wins coming a little more difficult than they were last year or at the start of the season, but no wonder what happens from here on out, I think Raymond has provided enough value to justify his small, $1-million deal. There’s such a focus on the big deals signed on the first day of free agency, but those rarely work out, and the Leafs (and every team) have seemed to have more success finding those players towards the end of the summer, visualized as broken to some degree and only needing playing time to be fixed.
Sure, Raymond has cooled down from his hot start and there are still parts tied to his production that are unsustainable, but he is just five points away from matching his entire total last season. He has been healthy for every game and has played on two different lines, covering for David Clarkson when suspended, and for both Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk when hurt. With it looking like Lupul may be out yet again, it’s nice that the Leafs can have a skilled winger that they can rotate into the top six without worrying.
Guys like Raymond are the ones you most want to see have a little bit of success, and I think it’s fair to recognize his efforts in Toronto this season. I don’t know what his statline looks at the end of the season, but I treat every goal of his as a subtle middle finger raised to his critics and to the 30 NHL teams that kept him unsigned through mid-September in the summer. As long as he stays healthy, I can’t think that he lasts that long on the free agent market in 2014.