TORONTO – Mason Raymond was coming off what he believed to be a pretty good sixth season in Vancouver. He scored 10 goals in 46 games and entered the summer of 2013 as an unrestricted free agent for the first time. But when September rolled around and training camps were due to open in a matter of days, Raymond found himself without the safety and security of a contract.
“We all knew what was happening with the cap,” he told the Leaf Report. “But did I think I'd be in that situation? No, not at all.”
Amid the now forgotten wreckage of the last NHL lockout was the plunge in the cap's upper limit from $70 million in 2013 to $64.3 million this fall. The dip in available dollars and subsequent uncertainty left many veterans, like Raymond and new Leaf Jerred Smithson, searching with frustration for amenable contracts, often with little or no success.
Though he had played in over 300 NHL games and had scored 25 goals as recently as 2010, Raymond had no better option but a professional tryout in Toronto on the eve of training camp. Suffice it to say, the lack of opportunity took him by surprise and remains a source of bewilderment.
“I had a good year last year,” said the 27-year-old, who totaled 22 points in his final season with the Canucks. “I fully expected something to materialize. To be honest, I didn't really know that you'd come into a team on a tryout five days before camp opened. I was optimistic and so was my agent, but it just seemed like for whatever reason a lot of players got stuck in the situation that I did.”
There was a general sense among teams, including the Leafs, that cost-effective opportunities might present themselves because of the cap crunch this summer. But to find Raymond available on the eve of training camp was certainly an unexpected and pleasant surprise.
Inked to a one-year contract for an even $1 million, he has proven a valuable find so far. Averaging what would be a career-high of 19 minutes, Raymond has scored five goals and 11 points in 17 games. His speedy presence, amid a 10-game suspension to David Clarkson and early injuries to Nik Kulemin, James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul, as well as current ones to Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland, has been an obvious aid to the Leafs, who sit third in the Atlantic division.
“I've always believed I'm an NHL player,” Raymond said. “I thought that prior to coming to camp, I thought that all summer and I think that to this day. You have to go out and prove that more importantly to yourself, I think. I'm a big believer that, [if] you do the right things, play some good hockey, everything else will take care of itself.”
Some fled to Europe with no jobs to be found as the summer months waned and became fall. Others stuck around and remained as patient as possible, Raymond and Smithson, a veteran of 588 career games prior to this season, among them.
“I knew the situation,” said Smithson, in conversation with the Leaf Report. “I knew the cap was going down, but nothing can really prepare you for that. I figured I was still good enough to get a job, get a one-way deal somewhere and, when it didn't happen, it was tough. It was not so much humbling, but more frustrating. I knew it was a possibility, but once it really hit, it [was] not a good feeling.”
Unlike Raymond, Smithson wasn't able to land even a tryout in the NHL, but one instead with the Marlies of the AHL. It was mid-October. He and his fiancé were parents of a newborn baby. Patience had been predictably difficult to keep.
“I knew right away I wasn't obviously a big name, that teams were going to go after the first few days, so I was prepared to be patient – maybe not this patient, but prepared to be patient,” he said. “Once August rolled around and still, there wasn't anything that was really coming out at me. There were a few tryout offers or two-way deals, but nothing that I was really willing to bite on right away.”
Smithson and his agent were forced to give a good, long look to Europe.
“It was never a dream of mine to go over to Europe,” he said. “And I made that clear to my agent right away that I'm willing to be as patient as I can. It was obviously a lot harder than I originally thought, but it worked out.”
Injuries to Bozak and Bolland finally opened a door back into the NHL for Smithson last week - the 34-year-old signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum of $550,000. A noted faceoff specialist and penalty killer, he has quickly gained an important role for Randy Carlyle, plugging the gap of the two injured centres in both regards.
“I'm not a big fan of the term ‘it is what is,' but I can't control [the cap crunch],” said Smithson, who played seven seasons in Nashville, also making stops in Los Angeles, Florida and Edmonton. “I could just control my attitude and try to stay in the best shape as I possibly could and, if a phone call came, just be ready for when that opportunity knocked. I'm very grateful for the opportunity the Leafs gave me, with the Marlies and with them, [and I'm] just looking to take advantage of it.”
Though Smithson projects as more of a stop-gap option, Raymond could earn himself a larger contract next summer with a productive season.
Two years ago, Clarke MacArthur joined the Leafs late in the summer on a bargain one-year deal, worth $1.1 million. Now a member of the Ottawa Senators, MacArthur busted out with a career season that first year in Toronto, subsequently signing a two-year deal worth $6.5 million the following offseason.
Raymond could be in line for something similar if he remains productive. At the very least, with the cap expected to rise once more, he is unlikely to find himself in such a precarious position again.
"That's hockey, that's life, that's the cards you were dealt and you have to deal with it,” Raymond said of the cap crunch this past summer. “You can sit here and say the 'what ifs,' 'whatevers,' and all that, but it was a situation and, unfortunately, it happened to some of us. I think [the cap was] the reason, [but] I don't know the exact reason. For [Smithson's] sake and my sake things have worked out well.”