Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is Michael Ryder THAT good?

Take a trip down memory lane, to July 1, 2008. We were all still mourning George Carlin... nobody had ever heard of Michael Phelps... gas prices were at an all-time high and rising.

That was the day that Michael Ryder became a Boston Bruin, joining a scrappy club that had finished 8th in the East and gotten bounced by Ryder's own Habs three months earlier.

Reacting to the trade, the Boston Globe ran a painfully-titled article, It's Not So Easy, Ryder, quoting an anonymous scout as saying the Bruins had "overpaid big". Another scout said that Ryder is a "one-dimensional player that if he's not scoring, he doesn't do anything else. He started the year in a slump, and on a team that plays up-tempo, he became not a [Guy] Carbonneau guy because suspect work ethic and skating issues were magnified with lack of scoring."

Would anyone have imagined that the guy who was overpaid at $4 million, the guy who sat in the press box for 3 of those 7 playoff games... THAT guy could change the playoff landscape of the Eastern Conference?

Exceeding Expectations

Fast-forward to February 5, 2009. Ryder was on pace to break his career-high mark of 30 goals, and had led the league in game-winning goals for nearly the entire season. He had personally put 14 points on the board for Boston, which was leading the Eastern Conference by a breathtaking 12 points. He was a stalwart on the league's best +/- line, and had assisted on a Zdeno Chara goal in the first period.

More importantly, the red-hot Bruins had just ripped through the toughest part of their schedule -- 8 games without a regulation loss, including a 4-0-1 record against all the East's conference contenders.

Then everything changed. Ryder took an errant stick in the face, shattering his sinus cavity "like an eggshell".

While Ryder sat in the press box, the Bruins skidded to a 1-4-2 slump. They lost to juggernauts San Jose and New Jersey, as well as doormats Tampa Bay and Nashville. Despite an overwhelming advantage in shots over those 7 games, they were shut out twice. Their lead in the East, which once seemed unsurmountable, has shrunk to 7 points -- and second-place Washington comes calling on Saturday.

Making A Stand

Tonight is the first of 6 critical home games for the reeling Bruins. It's also Ryder's first game back.

Even though he'll wear a full face shield, expect to see an immediate change in the Bruins' fortunes. As it turns out, Ryder is much more than a "one-dimensional" player who needs to shoot early and often.

For one thing, Ryder does play defense. He hits, backchecks and fills passing lanes. His reputation as a one-way player was earned under Guy Carbonneau, whose reputation as a top-tier coach was short-lived. Ryder has thrived under Claude Julien, who has also overseen defensive improvements in Marc Savard and Phil Kessel.

For another, Ryder does a lot more than shoot. He's a big body and can crash the net, but more importantly he draws defensive attention due to his quick release. When a defender cheats toward Ryder, he opens up room for virtuoso playmaker David Krecji, and Calder hopeful Blake Wheeler.

But most of all, Ryder gives the Bruins offensive depth. Over the past 7 games, the team has leaned heavily on Phil Kessel to produce goals from the right wing. Though Kessel recently broke out of a long scoring drought, he is still not fully productive after a bout with mono. Ryder gives the Bruins a second option, and reunites the second line which was so vital to the team's success in the first half of the season.

So yes, as it turns out, THAT guy could be THAT good. Ryder, who has never come close to playing in an All-Star Game, is one of the most important players on one of the best teams in the NHL. When he returns tonight, he'll rejoin a Bruins squad that's in its worst slump of the year.

With a single roster move, the Bruins might find a solution to their offensive problems -- and in turn, a way to escape the mid-season doldrums. This July, we might look back at tonight as one of the watershed moments in a monumental season.

Who would've thought?

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Unknown said...

Looks like you've got your proof. 2-point night, including assisting on the game-winner.

Then again, that could almost go for Byron BITZ! too.

Tom said...

Amazing how different they looked last night -- of course, it helps to actually get a bounce in our favor every now and then.

Unknown said...

Welcome back!

Good read. Not to mention Ryder is one of the best forecheckers on the B's. The guy is always putting pressure on the puck carrier.

I'm so glad that Ryder is proving all the naysayers wrong.