If there is one thing the local media can be counted on to do, it is find a Canuck to dump in Vancouver's doghouse, one of the most active in the NHL.
That doghouse was vacated recently by Keith Ballard who stood up for himself on a couple occasions, and combined with improved play of late, has bought himself some time as Vancouver's wet blankets search for someone else to grumble about.
Jason Botchford has stepped up and re-nominated Mason Raymond as the whipping boy version of flavour of the week. Win or lose, it never seems to cease. According to Botchford the time is now to find out "Who loves Raymond" and shop him around the trade block to see what kind of return he can bring the Canucks.
I would be willing to bet that Jason Botchford has heard the predictable "botched this, botched that" thing a million times in his life. Probably for him about as far from unexpected as a comment could get. That is how I feel about the Vancouver sports media's compulsive doghousing of the Canucks - it seems like I've heard it all my life.
"There were stories written about how he learned to score goals as a kid in Cochrane, Alta., with the help of a Border Collie who retrieved his shot pucks out of a net for him....The dog's name was Champ Since those stories, however, Raymond has been more dog than champ."
That metaphor leaves a real bad taste in the mouth. There are alot of us in Vancouver who actually love Raymond and to suggest that his play has declined to dog status is hard to stomach. Yes, it may seem like we have given him all the grace period he could expect - a whole 24 games since returning from his broken back. Botchford is not simply dogging on Raymond though. His issues run back before the injury and he did note some positive things - the fact that Raymond is a hard working player with exceptional speed, and like his dog Champ no doubt had, Raymond has a great disposition. To argue that he doesn't fit that well into the lineup or that he is "redundant" is one thing, but I find it hard to take those arguments at face value when the commentary goes beyond hockey talk, as so often takes place in the Vancouver media, and into tones that sound downright mean-spirited.
In fairness to Botchford, his main point is that he can't accept Raymond's scoring pace, and can't help but conclude that Raymond has to go. According to Botchford "too often, his stick is where scoring chances go to die." It is not personal - it only sounds a little bit so.
If it weren't for such a long prolific history of Vancouver media complainers, it might be easier to roll with this kind of commentary. It's certainly not my intention to single out Botchford or suggest that he get traded to the Columbus Dispatch (newspaper) - his peers have set this standard for the past few decades. When it comes to quality sports journalism, we have low expectations in Vancouver, due to a longstanding tone that has bordered on continuous whining and vitriol. It wouldn't be fair to criticize Botchford without pointing out that he has stepped into a culture of professional complainers - it is changing, but slowly.
I appreciate that the bulk of what Botchford was saying refers to the on-ice dynamics of the Canucks, and that his points are intended to raise the level of debate regarding the team, and what could be done to improve it. Even if the comments don't result in the moves he would like to see, there is the possibility that calling a player out might have the positive result of pushing him to produce - and clearly Botchford wanted to see Raymond get his tractor in gear, but has given up waiting. It's just that the density of the criticism seems a bit much.
Botchford has addressed some of the context of his spent patience with Raymond, but to say that Booth has emphatically replaced Raymond may be over-stating things a bit. Botchford likes Raymond's tools, but not his instincts, nor the fact that he is not the type of player to take his game into the dirty areas in front of the net. Raymond is not a power forward - fair enough, but who ever expected him to be?
"When Raymond is on the third line, he tips the scales. There's too much finesse and not enough thumping in the Canucks lineup. It's not only because of what he brings, but it's how he changes the players around him. Take Hansen, who has played several games like he's simply retired from going into corners. He admittedly is hitting less, and is less physical, because he is trying to better suit Raymond and Cody Hodgson."
First of all, I have no complaints about the way Hansen plays any game - Botchford seems to be working too hard to make his point at Raymond's expense. If Hansen is playing a less physical style of hockey, that is not Raymond's responsibiltiy and I doubt Hansen would agree with taking his comment about adapting to various linemates, and coming to that conclusion. Hansen has changed his game now that he plays with Hodgson and Raymond as opposed to Malhotra and Torres. He has become more of a scoring threat, and the rate at which he sets up plays has increased impressively. Hansen was encouraged to contribute more offensively - and his 13 goals and 25 points reflect that what was suspected about his potential was in fact the case. The third line may not play with as much grit, but has had a handful of games recently where it stands out and makes the difference. It lines up against opposition third defense pairings and is far more capable of exploiting them than last year's version - in fact the third line may be the biggest difference maker for the Canucks thus far this season. It may not play with as much grit as last year's version, but is anything but a slouch defensively, and the kind of scoring potential it has shown is arguably a lot more valuable than crashing and banging opponents. With all due respect to Botchford and the trend that assumes toughness is the most valuable asset in the NHL, I think a third line that can score like most second and some first lines is about as valuable a thing as there is in hockey.
Raymond's lack of scoring has been over-stated as well - he is producing at a 40 point season pace. He had a 25 goal season two years ago - last year he scored 15 times while missing a dozen games. He is on that same pace again this year, despite, as we all know, taking one for the team in last year's playoffs, in the form of a career threatening broken back. The Canucks have had sustained injuries to Booth and Kesler as well - the second and third lines have scarcely had a chance to develop momentum and chemistry thus far this season. Raymond is still a plus player, his outstanding potential thankfully does not seem to have been reduced by his tragic injury, but he seems to be receiving an undue amount of criticism for his inability to produce at a rate of players earning far larger salaries. Perhaps instead of complaining about him we should consider him and the Canucks fortunate that he seems capable of getting back to form. Running him down publicly is not going to increase his trade value, nor his confidence, but those are things the Vancouver sports media has never seemed to bother to take into consideration.
I don't want to over-react here, and expect the Vancouver media to walk on eggshells or shift their centre of gravity and become a bunch of homers mindlessly endorsing the home team. But it certainly seems like a media market that has been out of whack for a long time - and aside from Don Taylor and the Sportsnet crew, Vancouver media has had a bad attitude for as long as I can remember - a strange combination of high expectations and low contributions. Perhaps I am being too sensitive and the Raymond dog story has made me sentimental. Perhaps the Vancouver media has an intelligent strategy here - maybe constantly running down the home team results in a reverse psychological effect that angers us fans and motivates us to identify with the players even more strongly. If that is the case/strategy - credit for a job well done. If it backfires, what we are left with is frustrating in-fighting, and divided loyalties, as there always seem to by players who are just not good enough for the high expectations of our world class media. Perhaps the perpetual it's-not-good-enough thing is meant as a motivator, but it has had more the feel of of a drag that looms over Vancouver more consistently than rain clouds. If it weren't for Don Taylor et al, it would be hard to imagine how things would have evolved.
To say that we need a power forward is one thing - to run Raymond down so thoroughly in the process is another. But hey, Botchford certainly doesn't have an exclusive on that - it's what we do in Vancouver. We pay so much attention to the minute little imperfections that we don't let the game or the players breathe - at all. But omehow our never-good-enough team manages to compete with the other powerhouses in the NHL. It is worth noting that every team experiences the same human limits - even the Zetterburg's and Datsyuk's of the NHL have off days, even off months. Here's a quote from three months ago...
"The trouble with the Detroit Red Wings during this six-game losing streak starts at the top. Quite simply, their best players have been their worst players. Henrik Zetterberg has been an atrocious minus-nine in the past six games. Former Selke Trophy winner Pavel Datsyuk has been minus-six, Niklas Kronwall is minus-seven, Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary minus-five and even Nick Lidstrom is minus four."
It happens. In Vancouver, our impatience is unrealistic. And we talk about some of the best players in the world like they are...not good enough for us But what has our media and our fanbase really earned?
General Managers are generally not in the habit of disclosing or talking about trading their players - it does far more damage than good, so it is difficult to actually get information out of NHL GMs. So media go to other sources to fuel the speculation - the problem being that what that generates is a public debate that doesn't really serve the team or the players, and thus, ironically, the fans. Botchford quoted Ray Ferraro, his source in the speculation that Raymond may be on the way out - "Mason would have to be obtuse not to look around and see if they're going to make a deal here." But we all know it is Mike Gillis who makes that decision and the speculation no doubt does not help him do his job, or help him get full value for the players that some people want to see moved. It really just gives us something to chomp over while we wait for actual news.
I like Ray Ferraro. It's true - he can be snarly, and perhaps he had a bee in his bonnet the other day as a result of placing second to Pat Verbeek in the TSN all-time "little ball of hate" panel. But he is a really good hockey commentator. There was a time when his name was made into a verb - "Ferraroed" - it was used to descibe the state of having been ripped into - to get Ferraroed meant to get criticized harshly. His name is no longer used that way, and Ferraro has defiinitely moderated. He is passionate about hockey and has been able to translate that into consistently offering a high quality of information to those of us listening. Over the past few years he has gone from a guy that always seemed bitter, always seemded to be hindsighting plays to scold a player and tell us what should have been done - to one of the better commentators, with a sense of humour, and a very incisive hockey perspective - actually he is now one of my favorites.
I hope that part rubs off on his Vancouver colleagues despite this latest episode. I have grown tired, like many fans engaging in the Canucks.com discussion boards, of having players run down and into the doghouse pending a desired trade. There may be some credibility to these latest suggestions that Botchford is making, but it doesn't really serve us fans to hear that stuff, particularly if the player in question winds up remaining with the club - and alot of us want him to. In that case, it just interferes with the fans who identify with that player, and that after all, is what it is all about. In the end, we want to love and support our team. If we look at the teams with the greatest traditions - the Montreal Canadians (granted they also have a very active doghouse,and I doubt that helps), the Detroit Red Wings - those teams resisted doing things like changing their uniforms. That is because it is about identity - it is about continuity and you don't mess with a good thing. In the days of old, players didn't move around as much - they also didn't make a hundred times as much as the rest of us, but that is another matter. Fans identify with the team and the players, and the less unnecessary running down of our players, the better it is for team and fan identity and our collecitve morale. I'm not suggesting teams make less trades or that we don't debate them - but the media doesn't always have to be so negative and critical. For some reason it seems almost subconscious or compulsively so. We have come to expect it. It might be in vogue to hate, but we love our Vancouver Canucks, and a whole lot of us love Raymond. Mason Raymond is actually a damn good hockey player and he seems from here to be an even better person. Let's try getting off his back - it may help him get better, even faster.