The art of deflection applies when trying to project and protect the playing future of Mason Raymond and Manny Malhotra. They finished sour seasons on the fourth line, and because both were beset by long treks back from significant back and eye injuries respectively, Mike Gillis cut them some slack rather than cut their games to shreds in a season-ending assessment by the Vancouver Canucks general manager.
In the short term, that's understandable. What it means long term is debatable. Raymond is a restricted free agent of diminishing value and Malhotra has a year left on his contract, but could be a buyout candidate because winning faceoffs and killing penalties simply aren't enough.
Raymond missed his offseason regimen, training camp and the first 25 games of the season while recovering from a compression vertebrae fracture suffered in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final. While his career could have been in jeopardy, he returned, and so did his speed. But the rest of his game never did and the knock that the 26-year-old winger remains a peripheral player who's easily knocked down played out in the season finale. Raymond failed to covert a wrap-around attempt in overtime and it was the snapshot of a 10-goal campaign that raises doubt. Then again, he doesn't have contract leverage after earning $2.55 million US this season and not qualifying Raymond would make him an unrestricted free agent. Teams would be tempted by his speed and he would fetch something in a trade.
"If you're asking am I'm giving up, the answer is no," said Gillis. "He's going to have to make a step now that he wasn't able to make coming back from that injury. He knows it and we know it and he'll be evaluated. The potential for dire consequences was there with that injury and emotionally it's going to take some time for him to get over that."
Getting over the injury is one thing. Returning to the career 25 goals he scored in 2009-10 seems like a stretch but not out of the question if Raymond can tailor his game. That's what interests Gillis. Raymond had six points (3-3) in his first seven games after returning Dec. 4 but was also a healthy scratch on two occasions. At his best, he's a top-six fit that plays in the middle of the ice and drives the net. At his worst, he's reduced to being defensively responsible and a penalty killer.
"I know who I am as a player and I believe in myself," said Raymond. "I know I can go and do those things and maybe I need a little more will to go in and get those pucks in. I believe the law of averages will work their way out and I've learned that so much of this game is mental — maybe 70 per cent. I played 82 games when I scored 25 goals and played in different situations and on the power play. I believe I can be that player and I'm looking forward to having a full summer and a full training camp and being more prepared.
"I'll go above and beyond that to strengthen muscles around the damaged area to be able to do other movements in the gym that I've been unable to do in the past. It will be a continuous thing forever but something that is manageable."
As for Malhotra, it's hard to imagine how his game can return to a strong third-line presence because of the eye injury and the challenges it has presented the 31-year-old centre to adjust a game that needs to be good in all areas. And when you can't battle because two offseason eye procedures limited training time, the Canucks are in a quandary because Malhotra is not a winger. They will need to find a third-line centre because bringing back UFA Samme Pahlsson at age 35 doesn't fit the Gillis model and prospect Jordan Schroeder wouldn't fill that two-way role. If Malhotra isn't the answer, does the GM try to buy him out at two-thirds of the remaining $2.5 million deal? That total would be applied to the cap.
"An extremely difficult question to answer and I'm not going to answer it," said Gillis. "Manny is an extremely wonderful person and he suffered through this injury and is doing everything he can to improve it. We have the luxury of time on our hands to to see if it improves the next couple of months. We'll make all those decisions down the road."
Malhotra won't talk of any vision impairment he may have suffered when struck in the left eye by a deflected puck on March 16, 2011 injury or the four subsequent procedures to reduce pressure and the pooling of blood. He will talk of what a full summer to train will mean next fall. He still managed to finish fourth in NHL faceoff percentage at 58.5 per cent and third in the postseason at 64.6 per cent.
"I definitely feel confident in my abilities and I'm definitely looking forward to this summer and getting back in shape and being ready from the start instead of playing catch-up," said Malhotra, who had seven goals in 78 games. "It's frustrating to not feel the way you want coming out of the gate. I fully believe I can get to that level I'm accustomed to and what I expect of myself.
"I know it's still in me and it's just a manner of putting the work in."