TORONTO – Over six seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, Mason Raymond always approached training camp like he had to earn a place on the roster.
“There’s always somebody trying to take your spot,” he said. “You have to be out there earning and be fully prepared to earn your spot.”
The 27-year-old Raymond is using the same approach now that he’s at training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs on a professional tryout. Raymond and other veteran players in their prime or not long past it have been forced to go to camp without guaranteed NHL contracts, a product of the salary cap going down by almost $6 million.
“There is other guys going through it, so it’s an odd year,” Raymond said. “This is reality, this is the situation that myself as a player is in, and you deal with what you have.”
Others dealing with the same situation include Brad Boyes with the Florida Panthers, Ryan Whitney with the St. Louis Blues, Chuck Kobasew with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Hal Gill with the Philadelphia Flyers, Ian White with the Winnipeg Jets and David Steckel with the Minnesota Wild.
Each of those players was making at least $1 million last season but couldn’t find teams willing to provide a guaranteed deal for 2013-’14.
“The general consensus is, in talking to teams (I heard), ‘You’d help our team, we just don’t have the money,'” Gill said in a phone interview Friday. “I think it is bad timing. Of course with the buyouts it would’ve been nice to have another year and then go into free agency after that once the cap goes back up a little bit. But that’s the breaks.”
The Nashville Predators used a compliance buyout on Gill, a veteran defenceman who was set to make $2 million. Every team was given two compliance buyouts to use this past summer or next because under the new collective bargaining agreement, the cap went from $70.2 million to $64.3 million.
“I think with the cap coming down, everything kind of gets squeezed a little bit,” Leafs left-winger James van Riemsdyk said. “That’s just the way it works, I guess, now.”
Raymond and the others at camp on tryouts have come to accept that.
“It’s probably a bit of tough luck, but at the same time there’s nothing you can really do about it,” Kobasew said in a phone interview. “That’s why we had a lockout, the (cap) coming down, that was a big part of it. And there’s a lot of guys in my situation that are either at camps or sitting at home just hoping that something works out.”
Gill’s agent first called around to teams asking for a guaranteed deal before checking about just getting to camp, while Raymond’s had been in touch with Toronto general manager Dave Nonis for much of the off-season. Steckel came to grips with the possibility of a tryout as the summer dragged on without much traction.
“It’s difficult not only for me as a player but for me and my family — it’s out there and you don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Steckel said in a phone interview. “I think it’s tough not only with the cap going down, but a lot of GMs, once it does go down, they’re looking at younger guys and they want to give them a shot.”
Even with younger players around, Raymond has an excellent chance to make the Leafs’ roster, as long as there is salary-cap space to accommodate him. His speed is an element that could be lacking with Mikhail Grabovski and Matt Frattin gone.
The cap isn’t a problem for Boyes in Florida, and he could be the player on a tryout most likely to turn it into a guaranteed contract. The 31-year-old winger had 35 points for the New York Islanders last season and turned down their camp invitation to try to make a young Panthers team.
“It’s probably the first time that I’ve had to (try out),” Boyes told local reporters this week. “Even at junior you get drafted and kind of sign a deal and then when you’re younger you have that contract before you even start. This is new to me, but it’s a different mindset. It’s something that you definitely have to go out and earn, and nothing’s given to me.”
While Raymond looked at previous camps as competitions, the 38-year-old Gill conceded it’s tough to change his approach after playing 1,102 games in 16 NHL seasons.
“Obviously it’s different going in. You’re not on the team,” he said. “But in the same respect, I think once I get into the locker-room and once I get on the ice, there’s no real other way to do it than to feel like you’re part of a team and to go out and practise hard and try and help out teammates. That’s the fun part about hockey is you forget about the business of it once you’re on the ice.”
Overthinking the situation isn’t something Raymond is concerned about. After making $2.275 million with the Canucks last season and slightly more the previous two years, the left-winger almost certainly will have to take a pay cut to stick around with the cap-strapped Leafs.
“To be honest, the cap and all that’s secondary to me right now,” Raymond said. “I have to focus on getting a job, and I think when you’re playing well and you can earn a job, everything else takes care of itself.”
For those players who parlay tryouts into guaranteed one-year deals, this season could take care of their future. The cap is expected to rise for the 2014-’15 season.
If the cap reaches $70 million, that would bring upwards of $170 million back into the system. It doesn’t mean Raymond, Boyes and others will hit the jackpot, but there will be more opportunities out there.
“I think the way the cap system works is elite players are going to get paid more money, and there’s going to be guys fighting for the scraps, so to speak, Gill said. “I think that’s just part of the nature of having a salary cap. The best thing to do is worry about first things first and go from there.”
First things first for these NHL veterans is showing they deserve to make it over younger, potentially cheaper players.
Kobasew said this situation is similar to his first couple of years in the league when he was on an entry-level, two-way contract and could be sent to the minor leagues. The alternative this time is no contract at all, but the basics are similar.
“You just go play and you’re trying to make a team, you’re doing everything you can to make the team,” he said. “There are no guarantees.”