Mason Raymond says he feels absolutely no pressure in his new role.
Even though the Vancouver Canucks are marching into the NHL playoffs with heavy Stanley Cup expectations, and even though Raymond is substituting for irreplaceable third-line centre Manny Malhotra, the young forward has a point.
For the first time in two seasons, it's not about his numbers. The 25-year-old won't have to suffer the questions about inconsistent scoring should the Canucks experience a postseason outage this spring.
"It's at the time of the year where we're doing everything we can to prepare ourselves for the playoff run," said Raymond, a former second-line winger who is rounding out a disappointing season. "Wherever I can fit in is great."
In some ways, Raymond is a key postseason piece because when Vancouver's third line has chipped in offensively, the team has been nearly impossible to beat. Raymond has some goal-scoring ability, evident by his 25 tallies last year, and wingers Jannik Hansen and Raffi Torres have been generating chances for more than a month. So the potential is clearly there.
But if Raymond doesn't score - and he has just 13 goals and 37 points in 2010-11 - the Canucks have demonstrated that they can win while leaning on their top two lines and power play to provide the lion's share of offence. Malhotra, who is out for the year with an eye injury, and his linemates went through deep slumps in January and February, yet the Canucks continued winning to the tune of 16-7-4.
The stretch proved that Vancouver's third line must simply play competitive shifts that do not result in goals against and the team will be fine. Saturday's 4-1 loss to Edmonton provided several good examples in the first period, when Raymond and Co. hemmed the Oilers in, threatened the goal, and generated offensive-zone faceoffs. Those types of shifts allow the Sedin twins, or Ryan Kesler's line, to take the ice in a scoring position.
In other words, job well done.
"I liked them again tonight," head coach Alain Vigneault said of the third line, which he concocted earlier this week by moving Raymond to the middle. "For the second game in a row with those two guys, I thought they had real good jump."
Of course, Raymond is only in this position because of a lacklustre season on Kesler's left flank, and the inability of deadline acquisition Maxim Lapierre, who possesses some of Malhotra's skills, to earn Vigneault's trust. In a perfect world, Lapierre would be centring the third line and Raymond would be scoring goals on the second unit.
That, alas, has not happened.
Raymond's season began with an undisclosed upper-body injury that hampered his production, then a broken thumb cost him 10 games in December. He had an 11-game drought in January, and never seemed to rekindle the chemistry he had with Kesler last year.
Raymond is not a classic shutdown forward with Selke Trophy potential, but he has become a responsible defensive player over his career. That said, he won't make anyone forget Malhotra, particularly in the faceoff circle.
When Malhotra left the Canucks lineup on March 16, he was second in the league in faceoffs won. Raymond, meanwhile, has played very little centre, and admits that taking draws is a big adjustment. Come the postseason, that deficiency might limit Vigneault's opportunity to use the third line for defensive-zone faceoffs.