TORONTO — The first thing you need to know about Mason Raymond’s tryout with the Toronto Maple Leafs is that he has a legitimate chance to earn a contract by the end of training camp.
Many were quick to connect the dots on Raymond’s past history with Dave Nonis when the PTO agreement was signed last weekend, but the Maple Leafs general manager made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t simply doing the speedy winger a solid by bringing him in.
“There’s no charity even though I go back a little ways with Mason,” Nonis told sportsnet.ca on Thursday. “This isn’t one where I’m doing him a favour or his agent a favour. This is one where he’s going to be given a chance to make our team.”
Despite Toronto’s precarious situation with the salary cap, the GM has vowed to do the necessary roster juggling to free up a spot if Raymond merits one. That was the only assurance the player wanted before agreeing to come.
Raymond seems to have arrived at camp in a surprisingly positive frame of mind, particularly given how tough the summer was.
The 27-year-old left-winger became an unrestricted free agent for the first time and failed to land the multi-year deal he was looking for once the market opened on July 5. As time went on, the money and opportunities dried up.
“It was a time that you had to be patient when it’s hard to be patient,” said Raymond.
Now he finds himself with essentially no stability after earning a pro-rated $2.275 million last season with the Vancouver Canucks, the only NHL team he has ever played for.
Toronto expressed interest throughout the summer and was among six or seven suitors willing to bring Raymond to camp on a tryout. The Leafs appear to have a third-line opening on the left side (another potential candidate is prospect Carter Ashton) and Raymond is confident that he can fill whatever need the team has.
His speed, in particular, could be useful to a lineup that got slower in the off-season with the departures of Matt Frattin, Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski.
“I still feel like I’ve got what it takes to play in this league,” said Raymond. “Sometimes you’ve got to prove it. Other players have gone through situations like this where you’re reintroducing yourself a little bit, if you will.
“But so be it. You deal with the situation.”
Beyond the top tier free agents, this was an extremely difficult summer to be looking for a job. The salary cap dropped for the first time in NHL history — the $64.3-millon threshold was negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement — and a significant number of veteran players were left in limbo as a result.
Simply look at the list of other players currently on tryouts: Brad Boyes (Florida), Ian White (Winnipeg), Johan Hedberg (N.Y. Rangers), Ryan Whitney (St. Louis), Hal Gill (Philadelphia), Guillaume Latendresse (Phoenix), Radek Dvorak (Carolina), David Steckel (Minnesota) and Chuck Kobasew (Pittsburgh), among them.
Others such as Brenden Morrow, Tim Thomas and Manny Malhotra are still sitting at home. A few guys have already headed over to Europe.
“You look around not just the room, but the league, and there’s a lot of guys without jobs,” said veteran Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles, who is currently fighting for his own spot in the lineup.
“It was something that the league fought for — to get that cap to drop down — and I think you’re seeing kind of the remnants of it right now.”
Raymond is a former 25-goal and 50-point player who isn’t too far removed from a veterbrae compression fracture that required almost six months of recovery. He suffered that serious back injury during the 2011 Stanley Cup final after taking an awkward hit from Johnny Boychuk and didn’t return to Vancouver’s lineup until the following December.
Even though his offensive production has dipped since that point, Raymond calls the injury a “non-issue” now.
“I don’t like dwelling on the past,” he said. “Injuries are injuries, they come and they go, and that wasn’t a particularly fun one to go through. You learn a lot going through situations like that, I find, and the realization of how hard it is to fully recover from that.
“It does take time to get back to the physical health that you (need) to perform at the level you think you can.”
Part of what he’ll have to show the Leafs at training camp is that he’s reached that stage now. The early returns have certainly been good.
Coach Randy Carlyle thought Raymond was “very noticeable” during a Thursday scrimmage and is anxious to see what he can do once the exhibition games get going.
“He’s scored 25 goals in this league before and it’s not easy to score goals in the NHL,” said Carlyle. “We feel very fortunate to have him here.”
Raymond insists that there is no backup plan if things don’t work out in Toronto so he is intent on doing everything in his power to impress the Leafs brass.
At the very least, it shouldn’t hurt that he has a good relationship with Nonis, who drafted him 51st overall back in 2005. One thing that the Leafs GM finds desirable about Raymond is his versatility.
“He’s a smart player,” said Nonis. “At his size, he’s not going to be a bruiser. That’s not what you expect out of him. But he competes, he’s got great foot speed and he can play up and down the lineup.
“There’s no reason why Mason couldn’t play on a third line the way Randy uses his lines.”
Come Oct. 1 in Montreal, don’t be surprised if that’s exactly where you find him.