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Playing To Stay

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
More than anything, Monday’s roster moves by the Canucks’ coaching staff and management should be seen as a victory for the underdog. Ryan Shannon, Mason Raymond, Nathan McIver and even Brad Isbister, despite having close to 500 NHL games on his resume, came to training camp with something to prove. And for the time being, at least, it appears they have proved enough to start the season with the big club.

Far too often in today’s salary cap world of professional sports it seems roster spots are predetermined and true competition for jobs doesn’t really exist. So it’s a credit to Canucks management for taking an open-minded approach to training camp and allowing guys to play their way on to the hockey club. But the real credit goes to the guys that recognized the opportunities that existed and used the preseason to cement their spots.

“Players that deserve to be here are here. Both [Shannon and Raymond] had good camps and they’re going to start with us. We think they’re good players and they’re going to have a chance to prove it in the regular season,” says Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault. “The reason Nathan McIver is here is he made a case for himself: he’s not a scorer, but he scored two goals, he’s a safe defenseman, he fought four times, he deserves to start with us.”

In Shannon and Raymond, the Canucks have injected a healthy dose of both speed and skill. There’s no question that both guys can skate at the NHL level. It’s now up to them to demonstrate that they can handle grind of regular-season action against other legitimate big-leaguers and find a way to produce. It’s one thing to contribute offensively in exhibition games against minor-league goaltending and second-rate defensemen. Now, these guys are going to have to find a way to chip in offensively against big-league checking and world-class netminding.

In that regard, Shannon appears to be ahead of Raymond in as much as he scored two goals and added nine assists in 53 games with Anaheim last season. He also had an 86-point season (27 goals and 59 assists) with the Ducks’ American Hockey League farm team in his first year as a pro in 2005-06. Despite his small stature, the native of Darien, Connecticut has proven himself to be a terrific competitor and he’s made no secret of the fact that he wants to be a star in the NHL.

“I’ve been thrown into a lot of different positions during the exhibition games and beginning of training camp. I’m grateful for the opportunity, it’s an ongoing tryout and everyday is a grind,” says Shannon. “I’m on a two-year contract, so hopefully I can use the opportunity.”

A year ago at this time, Mason Raymond was starting his second season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Now, here he is ready to make the jump from college to the NHL with only a brief stint in the minors. Just 22, he’s shown offensive flair and creativity throughout the preseason and looked right at home playing the right side with Daniel and Henrik Sedin on Saturday in Edmonton.

But the Canucks – and Canuck fans – have to be careful with their expectations for the Calgary native. A 41-goal scorer in the Alberta Junior league three years ago, Raymond had 14 goals in 39 college games last year, but scored just twice in the 24 games he played with Manitoba after turning pro at the end of last season. He’s young with big upside, but he’s going to have to guard against frustration if he’s used sparingly and the offence doesn’t flow freely at the start of the season.

“I guess it’s a pretty big day, I haven’t talked to any of the guys, but I’m still standing here, so that’s a good sign so far,” says Raymond who is expected to skate on right wing with the twins when the Canucks start playing for keeps on Friday. “It (playing in the NHL) has always been a dream growing up, so it’s an honour to be here; it’s something I’m taking day by day, and something I’m not taking for granted.”

Brad Isbister gives the Canucks more size up front, but he’ll have to use it to remain on the roster. He scored a big man’s power goal in Calgary on Friday, but was hard to find in a checking role 24 hours later in Edmonton. That inconsistency is one of the reasons the Canucks are Isbister’s sixth NHL stop. Once a 22-goal scorer with the Islanders, the Canucks would love to see him get back near that number. A right-handed shot on guy with a big frame – perhaps Isbister will get a chance to set-up shop in front of the net on the power play.

And Nathan McIver has to be the feel-good story of the preseason. An 8th round pick who came out of nowhere and demonstrated that hard-work, hustle and a willingness to do the dirty work can pay off, the pride of Prince Edward Island literally fought his way on to the hockey club for now. He may not stay for the entire season, but he’s shown the Canucks they’ve got a guy who won’t hurt them if they want to beef up for any of those 32 divisional games on the schedule.

“I know I’m pretty happy. I thought I had a good preseason, so I’ve just got to keep working hard here,” says McIver. “I noticed a couple D got injured right now, so I’ve got to keep taking it one day at a time, work hard everyday, and we’ll see what happens.”

So it’s a good day for Ryan Shannon, Mason Raymond, Brad Isbister and Nathan McIver. And it has to be a tough day for guys like Rick Rypien, Jannik Hansen, Michael Grabner and Luc Bourdon who had high hopes of being with the big club for the start of the 2007-08 season.

And while the flight to Winnipeg is a trip that none of those players wanted to make, this training camp and preseason has clearly shown that the Canucks are all about opportunity. And if they go down and do what’s asked of them in Manitoba, it won’t be long before they’re back in the big leagues.

Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at

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