The Bruins found out before Saturday's game against Philadelphia that Michael Ryder will be out indefinitely with a facial fracture that he sustained in the third period of Thursday's game against the Ottawa Senators.
The Bruins took a flier on Ryder when they signed him as a free agent last summer. He had come off a poor year in Montreal where he found himself in coach Guy Carbonneau's dog house and went 14-17-31 in 70 games after a 30-28-58 year in 2006-07.
This year Ryder has been back on pace for a 30-goal season as he was already at 19 (with 17 assists) through 52 games played while manning the right wing on the second line with David Krejci and Blake Wheeler.
(Courtesy of the Associated Press)
With the Bruins battling various injuries that have tested their depth and forced head coach Claude Julien to become overly creative with his line choices, the second unit has provided strength and stability to power the Bruins all season. Krejci is having a Marc Savard-like breakout while Wheeler has been nothing short of a revelation in his first year out of the University of Minnesota.
Ryder provided the anchor for the unit, a veteran with a scorers touch who has played decent two-way hockey, as is evidenced by his 24 +/- ratio. The line was the center of attention through much of December and January as the Bruins battled injuries on the first line. Julien juggled players off the third line to team with Savard on the first, thus breaking down the overall continuity of the team. Yet, the Wheeler-Krejci-Ryder combination remained intact and productive, propelling the offense and thus the Bruins whole attack.
Opposing teams began to realize that Boston's punch was centered through the second line
during this stretch and keyed on them. It was no coincidence that when the Bruins lost their 10 game winning streak it also coincided with the stop of Krejci's (and thus the line's) point streak. Wheeler, perhaps running into a bit of a rookie wall, has been less effective and teams have been boring down on Krejci as they realize how dangerous he can be. That leaves the veteran Ryder to keep the unit strong and productive and he had been doing recently, with his strong night in Philadelphia on Wednesday an example. Yet, Saturday the Ryder-less second line was more or less non-existent in the 4-3 overtime loss to the Flyers.
Shawn Thornton temporarily filled the spot on the right wing before rejoining his customary cohorts of Stephane Yelle and Byron Bitz in the third period when it was clear that Krejci and Wheeler were game time no-shows.
Julien does not blame the unit's poor performance on Thornton but rather poor play by the two other forwards.
"It's hard to gauge because I didn't think that line was very efficient for us. It's hard to assess Thorny's job, but I threw him on the other line with Yelle a few times and you could see he was back in the groove with that line. So I don't think I was necessarily disappointed in his game. He played the way he used to play all the time."
The problem with the "way he used to play all the time" is that Thornton does not possess Ryder's goal scoring acumen. He is a bruiser and a banger, a good defensive forward whose five goals this year are a career high (through 191 career games). He joked after a game recently a
bout his prowess at putting pucks in the net.
"You guys surprised? I think they are all highlight-reel goals," Thornton said. "Obviously I am not the type of guy the type of moves to do before I get out there." (Thornton Courtesy Getty)
So, by his own admission, Thornton is really no Ryder. The thinking behind putting him on the second line was to add a little more toughness, the same way that Julien put Lucic (and for a while Kobasew) with the dynamic duo of Kessel and Savard on the first line. At the same time he may have gauged the parts a touch wrong as Wheeler and Krejci cannot support a goal-scoring attack the way that Kessel and Savard can. Part of that is a natural fatigue that has occurred after a rough stretch of very tight games against quality opponents. Part of it was the lack of their anchor. That line needs a solid shooter and skater like Ryder to bind them, not a banger and boards guy like Thornton.
The Bruins have had their fair share of injuries this season that keeps the bus between Boston and Providence bus busy. Yet, to this point, they had only played one game without Ryder. His absence creates a peculiar depth problem because there is nobody on the roster (nor in Providence) that can really take the place of a veteran go-to goal scorer. Patrice Bergeron could be an option but he has professed disinterest in playing wing after multiple years on the dot. Moving Chuck Kobasew up from the third line is probably the best option yet that move takes a significant amount of fire power away from Bergeron (who is teamed with the defensive minded P.J. Axelsson on the other wing) with no real scorer to step up in that wing spot.
Thus, the loss of Ryder for an extended period of time creates a dynamic that this Bruins that injuries to other players do not create. At the same time, after streaking together tough wins and tough points through the toughest portion of their schedule, the Bruins have the ability to be creative with their personnel decisions, to give players rest and get back into a crisper mode of hockey, the kind the fans who throng to TD Banknorth Garden saw in November and December.
This team handles adversity well. Yet they should still hope for a speedy recovery from the wily Ryder if they want to continue their conference dominance down the stretch and into the playoffs.