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Hockey Notes

In relief role, Raycroft shows the Canucks that he still has the goods

By Kevin Paul Dupont
November 8, 2009

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Roberto Luongo’s cracked rib is a significant thorn in Vancouver’s side, but it’s also a window of opportunity for Andrew Raycroft, the ex-Bruin netminder (and 2004 NHL Rookie of the Year) who went shopping for a new hockey home as a free agent in July.

“The main thing I was looking for,’’ recalled Raycroft, “was just to be on a good team again. Really, that was it. I wasn’t as concerned about what number of games I’d be playing, or what kind of chance it could lead to.

“I just knew that I missed being in the playoffs these last few years and I wanted to be part of a good team.’’

Raycroft, who will be 30 years old in May, made his fifth straight start Thursday night while Luongo continues to recover from the rib injury he sustained nearly two weeks ago, then aggravated Oct. 27, forcing him to the sideline. After splitting his first two starts in relief, Raycroft then posted three straight wins (over Colorado, the Rangers, and Minnesota), helping the Canucks maintain momentum after their surprisingly disappointing start (2-4-0). He went into yesterday leading the league in goals-against average at 1.60 and was tied for first in save percentage at .936.

“Yeah, we’re winning a few games,’’ said Raycroft. “And I’m contributing a little bit, so that’s kind of nice.’’

After he was the 135th pick in the 1998 draft, it appeared Raycroft would contribute around here for a long time, especially after his Rookie of the Year season, in which he rolled up a 29-18-9 record with a 2.05 goals-against average. But injuries diminished his role in 2005-06, opening up Tim Thomas’s chance to shine, and in June of ’06 the Bruins, led by new general manager Peter Chiarelli, were quick to unload Raycroft for Tuukka Rask.

Raycroft was initially a sensation in Toronto, where he totaled a career-high 37 wins his first season, but he lost his game the following season and ultimately lost his job to Vesa Toskala. A year with the talent-starved Avalanche last season led Raycroft to hit the bricks looking for work come July.

“There was a lot going on in July,’’ said Raycroft. “There were four or five teams out there saying, ‘OK, once we’re done talking to this guy, we’ll talk with you.’ But Vancouver was there saying, ‘It’s a one-year deal [at NHL minimum $500,000] and it’s a chance.’ So I took it.

“And sure, I knew [Luongo] was going to play a lot, but that didn’t matter to me, really. As I’ve gotten older and watched the league, I’ve realized you can’t control how much you are going to play. It’s impossible to know.

“I mean, look at New Jersey last year. Marty [Brodeur] goes down and Scott Clemmensen steps in there and makes the most of his opportunity. Same with Louie [Luongo] last year.’’

Luongo, among the league’s premier stoppers, missed the better part of two months last year with a nagging groin injury.

“All I looked at,’’ said Raycroft, “was that I was sick of not playing on the best teams. It gets frustrating. And the biggest deal with that is the mental part, just how you feel going into games and then during games.

“Even when you are not on a great team, you know it’s usually going to be close, you have a chance to win, because that’s just the way the game is most of the time.

“But when it’s not a good team, you give up a couple of goals, and then it quickly turns into a blowout or a nightmare. Good teams get through that. Bad teams, that mentality to get through it just isn’t there.’’

A LOOK AT THE BOOKS
Let’s check the size of that cap again
NHL clubs this season must abide by a $56.8 million salary cap, which is only $100,000 over the 2008-09 figure. In these tough economic times, it was a surprise when the league in late June announced even that modest increase.

Now, in light of last season’s books finally being settled, it makes little sense that there was any bump. As anticipated, players had to surrender a large amount of the escrow that in the second half of last season saw them yield nearly 25 percent of their paychecks to make sure they covered the potential shortfall.

The final tally: Some $208 million of player salaries, for an average just short of $7 million, was returned to the 30 NHL clubs. All in all, last season’s hockey-related revenue supported $1.492 billion in payroll. However, given that the owners paid out $1.73 billion over the course of the 6 1/2-month season, they were able to recoup $208 million of what the players were mandated to keep tucked away in their rainy day fund.

In other words, the “real’’ cap number for last season ended up being $49.8 million (right about what the industry supported for 2007-08). It’s a fairly safe assumption that the owners, working with the $56.8 million figure, again will write around $1.73 billion in payroll checks for this season. With players due 54 percent of HRR, the overall business must grow some $400 million this season, to about $3.5 billion, for them not to be running in the red again.

All of which underscores again that players and owners need to cultivate old and new money streams if their partnership, as defined by the CBA, is going to lead to true (i.e. financial) success. Not easy in the best of circumstances, but all the more difficult with the Players Association still reeling over its abrupt decision in September to fire executive director Paul Kelly, only to be left with a dismayed, disillusioned, and rudderless rank-and-file, some of whom had to surrender more than $1 million in 2008-09 wages.

Here in Boston, the industry’s lack of growth last season cost Zdeno Chara some $975,000 of his $7.5 million salary. If that HRR number doesn’t grow, Big Z could end up losing just shy of $3 million of that five-year/$37.5 million pact he signed here in July ’06.

ETC.
Get him going - one way or the other
Tampa’s continued (and not unexpected) mediocrity had ex-Bruin Rick Tocchet, the Lightning bench boss, questioning the passion of some of his charges, including captain Vinny Lecavalier. “He has to show us that’s he’s ready to play,’’ said Tocchet, disillusioned that the franchise center has only potted three goals this season. Meanwhile, star-in-the-making Steve Stamkos, only 19 years old, carried 12 goals into last night’s game at Montreal. Tocchet is right; the Bolts need more out of their franchise center, but it also could be that the coach’s words are a way to prompt Lecavalier to reach for his “Get Out Of Jail Free’’ card (surrender his no-trade clause, which activated July 1) and bring the financially-shaky franchise $7.727 million in annual cap relief.

Kessel off and running
An absolutely electrifying season debut Tuesday for Phil Kessel in Toronto’s blue-and-white silks. Back from offseason shoulder surgery, he darted around the ice as if he hadn’t played a game since May (well . . .), and though he didn’t record a point, he landed a career-high 10 shots in a 2-1 OT loss to Tampa. Seven more of his shots were blocked. Leaf fans hadn’t seen that kind of excitement since the likes of Alexander Mogilny or Mats Sundin (makes one wonder when they’ll have a good Canadian-born lad work them into a lather). Frightening, though, to see the ex-Bruin transition toward the offensive end, with head down, and get smoked by a thunderous straight-on check from Tampa defenseman Mattias Ohlund in the first period. “Clean hit, he got me good,’’ said Kessel, who needed a couple of minutes in the dressing room to gather himself and return only slightly worse for wear (cut lip). Kessel’s play was far bolder and more relaxed than anything we saw of him in Boston - reminiscent of Joe Thornton’s first few games with the Sharks when Jumbo flashed unfamiliar speed and zeal in the offensive end. If that’s the Kessel the Leafs get every night, they’ll have the best bargain in the NHL, even at $5.4 million a year and the possibility of yielding the No. 1 draft pick to Boston next June. Thornton has continued to be pretty much the same player who infuriated Boston management. Kessel is young enough (22) to keep pushing the envelope, and it looks as if coach Ron Wilson will make him a permanent fixture on the left half-wall for power-play duty. His development, or stagnation, will be fascinating to watch.

Freshman orientation
Ex-UNH Wildcat James van Riemsdyk, off to a slow start last month with the Flyers when he missed two games with concussion-like symptoms, was tied (with Colorado’s Ryan O’Reilly) atop the NHL’s rookie scoring list with 14 points, placing both his skates firmly in the Calder Trophy race. The last Hockey East kid to take Rookie of the Year honors: former BU standout Chris Drury, with the 1998-99 Avalanche. Former BC Eagle Brian Leetch won the Calder with the 1988-89 Rangers. It looks as if van Riemsdyk’s stiffest competition could come from three defensemen: Mike Del Zotto (Rangers), Tyler Myers (Buffalo), and Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay). The 6-8 Myers, only 19 and drafted 12th overall in ’08 by the Sabres, was here on Causeway Street last night.

Looking out for No. 1
A lot can change between now and game No. 1,230 of the schedule on April 11, but unless Kessel leads a Salvation Army revival show in Toronto, the Leafs will hand over one of the top five picks, if not the No. 1, in the June draft to Boston. Kessel, picked No. 5 overall by the Bruins in ’06, was one of only three top 10 picks the Bruins have had in the last dozen drafts (Zach Hamill, No. 8, ’07, and Lars Jonsson, No. 7, 2000). For now, according to Chiarelli, the prospect of making such a high pick doesn’t change the franchise’s approach to scouting. “Not really,’’ said the GM. “I feel confident with our scouting staff, with the guys we have scouting the amateurs and the input of Jim Benning and Scott Bradley. That said, sure, your radar is up a bit because of the nature of what the pick could be. My goal each year is to see [in person] the top 30 kids, and now I’ll probably focus more on the top guys. So, no strategic coverage changes, but certainly you’re aware that, ‘Hey, this is a chance for a nice pick.’ And when you are in the top echelon, and have a shot at an impact player, you have to get it right.’’

Take your medicine
Lots of Albertans miffed that their NHL southern entry, the Flames, all received their H1N1 inoculations well ahead of thousands in the general public, including the many considered to be of greater health risk (a rare lesson in Western Canada imitating Wall Street). Not a good look, no matter how many attempts by Flames management to spin it, especially given that the players’ family members also got their shots. Provincial health officials continue the Inocu-gate investigation.

Loose pucks
The Lightning figure that they may reach down to the minors and give ex-Bruin Brandon Bochenski a shot. Late last week, BranBo was 7-2 -9 in 11 games with Norfolk (AHL) . . . The Blackhawks hope to have Marian Hossa (shoulder surgery) back in their lineup by the end of the month, if not sooner. Meanwhile, captain Jonathan Toews remains day-to-day, sidelined the last 2 1/2 weeks by a concussion . . . Stars coach Marc Crawford on Fabian Brunnstrom, the Swedish forward whom the Bruins hoped to sign here as a free agent: “Below the tops of the circles, he’s a gifted offensive player. But the coaches are telling me there’s still another level - he’s just got to get in there and compete.’’ . . . Some 48 hours after he set up the game-winner (1-0) over the Bruins, giving him 18 points this season, Vinny Prospal was awarded an alternate captain’s “A’’ with the Rangers. Not bad for a guy who in June was bought out by the Lightning, who must pay him $7 million over the next six years. “When they bought me out,’’ Prospal told the New York Post, “it was like my world broke down in pieces.’’ . . . NHL legends Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, and Leetch (combined career totals: 5,319 games, 2,348 goals, 5,568 points) all will be inducted tomorrow into the Hockey Hall of Fame, along with Devils president/GM Lou Lamoriello in the Builders category. John Davidson (broadcast) and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Dave Molinari (print), will be honored for their media contributions . . . Joe Colborne, Boston’s top pick (16th overall) in the ’08 draft, returned last weekend to the University of Denver lineup after needing surgery to repair a fractured finger . . . Boston prospect Carl Soderberg is not with the Swedish squad competing in the Karjala Cup in Finland. Countryman Peter Forsberg is wearing the Three Crowns once more, hoping to prove he is fit again for NHL duty . . . Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione, heroes of the 1980 US squad that won Olympic gold at Lake Placid, laced ’em up at Rockefeller Center last week in a promo on the “Today’’ show that included Team USA 2010 hopeful David Backes. Meredith Vieira knocked a couple into the net that Vladislav Tretiak, had he been there, should have turned back with ease. But that’s an old story.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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