Ryan Spooner during his Providence Bruins days(Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)
A child throws a rock into a still pond. The rock sinks to the murky bottom, but the impact creates a reaction well beyond what is seen on the surface.
This ripple effect can be applied to the young career of Boston Bruins center Ryan Spooner, who has finally arrived on the NHL stage as a regular contributor to his team’s fortunes.
It was not a given, however, that he would reach this point. If history is any indication, there have been legions of talented, skilled players who for one reason or another, could never make that extra step to establish themselves at hockey’s highest level. And, at this point just a year ago, it was looking more and more like Spooner was going to be another name to add to Boston’s growing list of capable, but ultimately unsuccessful draft picks.
This is the story of how Spooner and a small bit of help from fate and circumstance altered that trajectory.
The hockey prodigy from Kanata
Spooner grew up near Ottawa in Kanata, most famous as the home of the Ottawa Senators’ home rink, the Canadian Tire Centre. From an early age, he took to hockey as most Canadian sons do, and excelled as a naturally gifted skater and offensive player. He still laughs about the time he and Sue Spooner skated together in a mother-son game early in his minor career and she scored a goal, adding one tally to an impressive haul from the Spooner duo that day.
As he grew older, the little prodigy who wore No. 76 was so fast, so dangerous, so sublimely skilled that there wasn’t a whole lot opposing teams and coaches could do other than to accept that he was going to find a way to break through- the key was in minimizing the damage Spooner would do to them. As the years passed, his peers grew a little taller and stronger, but Spooner did what his coaches asked of him- he went out and scored goals. Lots of them.
It was around this time that Spooner met the man who would have the most profound effect on his own pursuit to one day play in the NHL.
Enter Pat Malloy
Pat Malloy is an Ottawa native and was a promising player and natural skater growing up. While pursuing his dream of playing hockey in the NCAA and possibly beyond that chance was cut short by chronic injury, which affected his skating. In 2000, Malloy decided that his love of hockey and connection to the game could flourish as a mentor and in the growing area of player development. Over the years, Malloy has not only worked with NHL players like Spooner, but several others including current Kings star Tyler Toffoli and even B’s veteran Chris Kelly. Malloy’s success led to greater recognition and he was ultimately hired by former Senators assistant GM Tim Murray to join the Buffalo Sabres organization as a skating and skills coach when Murray took the helm in Western New York before the 2014-15 season.
However, long before Malloy parlayed his local success into an NHL job, he got to know Spooner first as an opponent, and then as a client and student of the game.
“I coached against him at first, but even in that situation I could see what a special player he was at that age,” Malloy said from his office as the director of hockey for the PEAK Academy in Ottawa. “Our relationship sort of built organically, if you will. I don’t know if it was a mutual respect with the way he played and the way I coached but as big as Ottawa is, it’s actually a pretty small community and there are no secrets in hockey. We just sort of gravitated to one another and here we are years and years later.
“What started out as a skill and skating coach kind of thing has sort of turned into a mentorship situation where there aren’t many days that go by where we aren’t communicating about how things are going, last night’s game and the upcoming game and sort of planning and putting in place things from a personal perspective that we know will help him have success.”
Spooner recalled seeing Malloy with his PEAK Academy charges in the same rink he trained in and was at first intrigued by what he saw.
“I just remember the Patty works at PEAK and he does 1-on-1 sessions and I remember going to the gym and I would see him out on the ice,” Spooner told the Scouting Post during a recent off day. “He’d be working with some kids that were younger and some kids that were older and it just looked like it was fun stuff- scoring drills, stickhandling drills, footwork and all that kind of stuff. I think I just said to my dad that was something I wanted to do and I went out and tried it, loved it and I’ve been doing it since then.”
From OHL star to NHL prospect
Spooner ended up being the fifth overall pick at age 16 in the 2008 OHL Priority Selection draft of the storied Peterborough Petes. Already working with Malloy by then, he went on to become the youngest player in Peterborough team history to score 30 goals in the 2008-09 season, and was primed for an even bigger breakout in his draft season.
Unfortunately for Spooner, right after the 2010 CHL Top Prospects Game (he scored a memorable goal off a 2-on-1 rush when he ripped home a Taylor Hall cross-ice pass), he fractured his clavicle, causing him to miss just about all of the rest of the 2009-10 OHL campaign. Although he caught the tail-end of the season and playoffs, he wasn’t the same kind of dynamic presence he had been, and that might have been a reason for his fall from projected late first-rounder in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, to the 45th overall pick the Bruins tabbed him with in the middle of the second.
Almost immediately, Spooner became a fan favorite when he teamed up with second overall selection Tyler Seguin and 32nd pick Jared Knight at the trio’s first development camp, which brought the Bruins faithful out to the Ristuccia Arena in droves mainly to see Seguin. However, by week’s end, Spooner had caught the fans’ eyes with his impressive combination of speed and offensive savvy.
He parlayed that into an extended look at his first NHL training camp before he was returned to junior not too long before the 2010-11 NHL season opened. Spooner returned to a different situation with the Petes than one he had been accustomed in being around the big club, and with Peterborough struggling out of the gate under new coach Mike Pelino, things didn’t click and Spooner asked out. In what was a messy divorce, Spooner was sent to the Kingston Frontenacs, but Pelino blasted him on the way out for not being a good team guy.
Spooner, for his part, has always chosen not to directly address the personal critiques from his former coach (Pelino was let go from his duties in Peterborough during the 2012-13 season) but would only say that he was grateful to the Petes organization for giving him an opportunity, and that moving on was the best thing for him at the time.
“When that happened, I was a kid- I was 18- I just knew that I wasn’t happy where I was,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do, but I just knew that it wasn’t working for me and I asked for a trade. I learned a lot about the business of hockey going through that and I think it prepared me later for some of the stuff I’ve experienced in Boston.”
Still, fans were eager to see him make the Bruins, so when he was returned to junior pretty early in his second NHL training camp in 2011, several months after the B’s won the Stanley Cup, there was some disappointment in multiple circles.
“It was an always an understanding that the skill level was there, the creativity was there,” said Malloy. “Growing up he was able to do things in minor hockey and through junior that came very easy to him, came very instinctively than the finer points of the game. I think the areas that the Bruins and my exposure to them, and I would always report back to them in the summers on the things we were working on and was fully aware of what they were looking for and the mindset in terms of making sure he was growing and buying into the idea of doing the things he needed to do to be an everyday guy.”
Paying his dues in the AHL
Even with the world of skill, Spooner entered his first full AHL season in 2012-13 with a laundry list of things to work on in his game. Starting in Providence was eased by the fact that there was an NHL lockout going on, so he had no opportunity to impress the Boston brass in training camp, but instead reported to the minors to put into practice what he had worked on with Malloy that summer.
Defenseman Colby Cohen, who scored the 2009 NCAA championship-winning overtime goal for the Boston University Terriers and was a Boston farmhand with Spooner, fondly recalls how impressed he was with the rookie center’s ability when he first arrived in Providence (he made a couple of late-season appearances in 2011 and 2012 after his junior years ended).
“He has one of the highest hockey IQs of any player I’ve ever been on the ice with,” Cohen said via text. “He has 360-degree vision, which not many players have. His hockey IQ and vision has got to be on the 1 percent highest scale I’ve seen. I played some power play with him in the minors and you never had to call for the puck on the back door play. He saw you (and got it to you).”
Spooner’s maturation process began with Providence head coach Bruce Cassidy, who told me back during an interview in Spooner’s first season that the rookie was at his absolute best when he was attacking defenses with his speed.
“He’s not a player who gets a great deal done when he’s out on the perimeter dancing around,” Cassidy said after a Providence victory in which Spooner netted a pair of goals. “You could see it tonight with him, as he was attacking into the middle of the ice and being aggressive at going to the net. That’s how Ryan has to play if he’s going to be successful not only at this level but in the NHL.”
Spooner got a taste of the big league with a brief recall to Boston in early 2013, and then got another, more extended opportunity the following season, when Chris Kelly went down in December with an injury that forced him out of the Bruins lineup for several weeks. Spooner showed flashes of his potential, including a three-assist performance against Nashville, but he was unable to find the back of the net in 23 games (11 assists) with the big club.
Although he was ultimately sent back to Providence, the longer Spooner was around head coach Claude Julien and the other coaches and players, the more he saw what was expected of him in Boston’s system and organizational climate.
“What you see a lot now is that players that have the ability to do things at a higher rate, and sometimes it takes more time and convincing that those dirtier areas, those smaller areas…that attention to detail defensively- understanding that you earn the right to advance and you need to do the job defensively in order to let your talent level come through,” Malloy said. “That’s not the sexy part of the game, and it’s harder for a player that has high-end ability to get their head around sometimes because at various levels they didn’t have to or it was something they weren’t asked to do, so what I saw with him was the maturity of understanding sometimes I’ve got to do things that I might not think are the best for me but are best for the group.”
Spooner played enough on a President’s Trophy-winning roster to show he had enough talent to belong in the NHL, and that December- January run in Boston set Spooner up for even bigger expectations entering the 2014-15 season.
Nearing the end of the line with B’s?
The good news for Spooner when the new season started against Philadelphia was that for the first time in his career he was on the opening night roster. The bad news was, that after an up-and-down training camp, Spooner was playing such a reduced role (and on the wing where he did not look comfortable) that it was difficult for him to leverage his game’s strengths. After five games in a bit role and barely an impact, he was sent back down to Providence where the team moved him back to center to try and get him going again.
At the same time, rookie David Pastrnak was in the process of producing at a point-per-game rate and would soon grab much of the attention in Providence before he ultimately won a permanent job with Boston by mid-January.
Meanwhile, Spooner got injured in late December and went back on the shelf for a period of weeks while he worked on trying to get back on the ice. The injury may have happened at a critical time, and is the first element of circumstance that may have intervened to save Boston management from making a big mistake.
There were rumors that the B’s and then-GM Peter Chiarelli were entertaining moving Spooner to a team out in the Western Conference in an exchange of underachieving second-round picks. That team had sent several of its scouts into Providence on several occasions, and just as things where heating up, Spooner was knocked out of action, putting any alleged trade talks on hold.
He returned to the Providence lineup in late January and his production immediately improved, as Spooner began playing his best hockey of the season. Not long after that, fate intervened again, this time in the form of an injury to a key member of the Boston roster.
When opportunity knocks…
When David Krejci injured his MCL in late February 2015, the B’s were in a dire situation.
Just one year after cruising to the league’s best regular season record, the team was fighting for its playoff lives, and the loss of Krejci stood to have an enormous impact on the postseason chances.
Spooner was called up for a Sunday game against Chicago and promptly made an impact with an assist in a much-needed Boston win on February 22nd. Five nights later, on February 27, Spooner tallied his 1st NHL goal, an overtime strike that propelled Boston to a much-needed 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils. (Highlight vids courtesy of “Dafoomie”)
Although the Bruins ultimately failed in their bid to make the 2015 postseason, Spooner was one of the bright spots in a dismal spring, posting eight goals and 18 points in 24 NHL games after the late February recall. The B’s saw a more confident and rounded Spooner in his second NHL stint last season, and he clicked centering a line with Milan Lucic and Pastrnak.
Through it all, Malloy and several other people have been instrumental in helping to keep Spooner grounded and focused on the ultimate goal of establishing himself as a Bruin, even with the setbacks and hits to his confidence at various times.
“The thing I like about him is that it’s not like I go out and work on my skills and then I don’t talk to him again until I’m home again,” Spooner said. “I talk to him pretty much after all my games and he tells me things I need to improve on and things I did well. The thing I like about Pat, too, is that he’s very approachable and easy to talk to. He’s a mentor as someone I talk to after the games and I talk to my dad, I talk to my best friend and I also talk to my agent.
“Last year was especially tough for me at different times- I had heard some trade stuff and I wasn’t playing my best and I remember Patty saying to me ‘You need to go out and have fun, you need to remember why you’re playing hockey. Just go out there and use your skills and speed.’ He’s always been the one who’s reminded me that I’m at my best and using my speed and skills.”
As the disappointment of not making the playoffs wore off last April, Spooner went back home Ottawa to prepare for a new season and for the first time, a true opportunity to contribute to Boston’s fortunes as a roster regular right out of the gate.
After a short break, he went right to work with Malloy, who had always had a willing and driven student, but one who now had considerable focus on one area in particular that he wanted to address before the new season began.
“Last summer (Ryan) came back and said ‘I need to have more of a shooter’s mentality,’ and that’s absolutely accurate and that of course comes from the top,” Malloy said. “The Bruins had said that with his skill level, they’d like to see him shoot pucks more and become more of a threat from that perspective. So, a portion of that time spent last year and the year before was spent saying let’s develop a mid-range shot, let’s develop a one-timer, which you’re starting to see him use more now, with all that time he sees on the power play, and the confidence to do that under pressure and the confidence to do those things with a mindset that he’s going to dictate the outcome.”
Spooner said that in order to improve the mechanics of his shot, Malloy used his iPad to take a tremendous amount of video and then the two broke down his shot in the close level of detail needed to identify ways to improve his release, shot power and accuracy.
With the best stretch of NHL hockey in the rearview, Spooner and Malloy both new that now was the time to put all of the hard work from years past into practice and keep the positive momentum going forward.
10-to-2: the making of an NHL center
Armed with a new two-year, 1-way contract extension, Spooner returned to Boston as the best bet to start the year as the team’s No. 3 center behind Patrice Bergeron and Krejci.
After a preseason that began with great promise, the team began to show signs of what was likely to be a year of peaks and valleys in 2015-16, but nobody was quite prepared for how brutal the Bruins would begin the year in a three-game homestand, going 0-3.
Spooner, like many of his teammates, took a little longer to get going. He excelled on the power play from the get-go, but his even strength play drew criticism early. Some of it had to do with a revolving door of linemates, but things seemed to hit a low point when he was benched during a December loss to Calgary. The B’s battled back from a deficit to send the game to overtime, but came up short.
After that Spooner seemed to bear down and play with more urgency in his game, but the real test came on December 27, when Krejci was lost again from the Boston lineup for an extended period of time against Ottawa.
That meant a promotion to the second line again for the first time since a year ago in February when Krejci was lost for most of the rest of the regular season and Spooner proved for really the first time in his young NHL career that he belonged in Boston.
From there, Spooner’s production took off, as he was able to more than hold up the offensive end of things while also demonstrating effectiveness in his 200-foot game, something that had long been something critics pointed to as a source of friction with Julien.
“I thought he played really well tonight,” Julien told the Boston Globe and assembled media after Boston’s 2-1 overtime loss to Ottawa more than a week ago. “I thought he skated well. I don’t know how many times I saw him make a real great backcheck. Both sides of the puck, he was good. He made good plays, good decisions. A lot of good things happening with Ryan tonight. I thought it was one of his better games.”
In a recent win over the New Jersey Devils, Spooner was skating with confidence and effectiveness, employing one of his favorite skating moves, the 10-to-2, on a goal he scored against Cory Schneider.
“He was always a kid that had an ability to be mobile,” said Malloy referencing the genesis of the work the two have done to make the 10-to-2 an effective element of Spooner’s skating threat. “I think what we did together was we figured out ways and continue to figure out ways to buy time and space. It’s one of those ways that number one- it makes you a dynamic moving target; it makes it harder for defenders to track you because you can change angles.”
For Spooner’s part, he recognizes its effectiveness but also believes in not using too much that he becomes predictable with it.
“In terms of it being effective for me, when you get the puck in the corner and you’re attacking out, it seems to work well,” he said. “ On the power play when I come through the middle of the ice, I can use it, so that you’re kind of looking back at the defenseman to get the pass or if you’re coming down the left side of the ice and you have some time you can see the entire rink.
“On the goal I scored (against the Devils), I got it and I always do it when I go across at the top (of the offensive zone) because I find that it gives you a better angle, the puck’s in front of me more so it’s tougher for a guy to block the shot and then it’s just been something I’ve done since I’ve been 17 or 18 and it was something I did working with Patty on drills- going around cones, and stuff like that.”
In effect, the 10-to-2, in a way, symbolizes Spooner as a scorer. It is something that not just anyone can go out and employ because it requires speed and a mastery of edges and balance to make work, but according to Malloy, it’s something the two have worked at perfecting because of what it does to enhance Spooner’s offensive lethality.
“A lot of what we have done in summers past in terms of developing his shot came from having the ability- when you can use your feet to create square hips to the net and balanced power so that you can release pucks at maybe a better pace than he had been previously doing,” said Malloy. “When moves like that get you around the corner, get you square- it allows you to be in spots where spots are better to be created from rather than shooting off balance and shooting on angles.”
The next step
Krejci is now considered day-to-day and Spooner will likely return to his third line pivot spot in the Boston lineup. However, the last near month multitude of games as a top-2 center has given him the confidence to keep finding ways to contribute to the B’s fortunes.
“Going forward, once Krech gets back I’m going to get sent back down to the third line and I just need to focus on the same things I’ve been doing,” he said. “I need to use my speed and my skill and try to make the players around me better and whoever they’re going to put me with, I just need to get them the puck, play responsibly and it definitely helps out for the confidence that I was able to go up there and score a bit. I thought my defensive game was going along better, but I still need to work on it and work on my faceoffs. I’ve played some games where I’ve been 60 percent in the dot and then (against Toronto) I was like 2 and 12, so it’s been up and down, so I need to find more consistency for sure. But for the most part I’ve been happy with my game, but there are things to work on.”
Spooner’s old teammate Cohen, now an NCAA television color analyst for ASN, feels like the best is yet to come for him.
“He’s done what he’s needed to in terms of improving his defensive game and being lower risk, lower reward in his approach,” Cohen said alluding to Spooner’s success at sticking in the NHL. “He skates so well, so being good defensively is relatively easy for him in that he has an amazing stick and doesn’t need to be physical to be effective on defense.
“Give him a longer leash- if a coach gives him that, he is a top-six and really even more like a top-three forward I believe.”
Spooner has told Malloy what he wants their focus areas to be when the season ends, hopefully after an opportunity to gain experience in the NHL postseason.
“He’s aware of the areas he needs to improve and he’s bought into that,” Malloy said. “We’re already talking about next summer in terms of improving things like his faceoff play; improving areas where he’s harder on pucks and that tells me that we’ve taken that next step in terms of his evolution and his maturity and that he’s starting to feel confidence from a points production standpoint where he feels like he can make plays, but he’s also talking about the things that are a little less sexy to deal with.”
And as far as Malloy is concerned, how much work can he still do with Spooner as the soon-to-be 24-year-old continues to mature as a pro?
“There’s no such thing as fast enough, there’s no such thing as good enough in the game of hockey. You can always develop and work and so I think the things we do with Ryan is because he’s a high-end skater and he’s got high-end puck skills, we’ll look at taking those skill sets and applying them to areas of the game where he has the ability to dictate the outcomes of plays, where he’s forcing people into situations where they need to react to him or defend against him from things he’s done by applying that high-end ability to skate and navigate the ice with the puck.”
And that ripple effect we talked about earlier?
Think about how different this conversation would be if Spooner were doing all of this in another team’s uniform. Good thing for the Bruins that’s not the case.