BOSTON -- Ryan Spooner had an inkling going into Bruins training camp that this season was going to be a challenge.
The Bruins were planning to move the 24-year-old from his natural center position, and instead install him on the left wing with David Krejci and David Backes on a forward line featuring three natural centers all at once. He was also coming off a 13-goal, 49-point season that saw him establish himself as an NHL caliber center with even greater offensive upside based on his blazing skating speed, and ability to create offense, particularly on the power play.
So the expectations were elevated for Spooner in his second full NHL season, and they would be there even while playing the wing position for the first extended time in his professional career. That would be a demanding spot for anybody and Spooner has been just okay thus far: three goals and eight points along with a minus-2 rating in 21 games for the Bruins.
He’s also been relegated to the fourth line for the last few games, and at times even been taken off the power play despite it clearly serving as one of his specialties. When asked about those moves, Claude Julien would either glibly chalk it up to general “coaching”, or simply turn questions about Spooner’s status back toward the player for his own explanation.
Clearly the Bruins have tried to get Spooner to adopt some of the same playing style improvements that have worked so well for 20-year-old David Pastrnak this season, but he’s been slower to fully embrace the puck battles and necessary board work. There are moments when it’s all happening for Spooner, and there are still times when he fades to the background with a passive style to his game.
Knowing all that, it was a good sign on Sunday afternoon when Spooner won a key battle along the side boards that eventually led to Dominic Moore’s opening goal in the 4-1 win over the Lightning. It was exactly what the Bruins want to see more out of with Spooner, and it’s something he’s still trying to drag out of himself.
It’s also no coincidence that he found good skating legs in that game as well, and was noticeable despite limited ice time on the fourth line with Moore and Jimmy Hayes.
“I felt a lot better than I have in the past. I was playing a little bit, I guess, timid and kind of afraid [to start this season], but I’m 24 now. So I just got to go out there and I just have to play, and that’s what I’m going to do,” said Spooner. “I have been taken off the power play [at times]. I think that’s kind of a message to me that if I’m not playing how they want me to, then they are going to take that away from me.
“So at the end of the day, I think the power play is something that I do well and I think I can help out. I just have to go out there and I have to play, use my speed and my skill. That’s what I have been trying to do.”
It hasn’t been an awful start by any means for Spooner, who is on pace for 12 goals and 31 points and has managed to pump in a pair of power play goals already this season. It just hasn’t been all that it can be, and that part is up to the player.
Clearly there are other players with bigger names and bigger paychecks, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to name a couple, that have underachieved offensively for the Black and Gold as well. But most of those other players help the Bruins in different areas aside from pure offensive production, and those are parts of the game that Spooner hasn’t mastered despite working on his face-offs, trying to play stronger on the wall and simply attempting to survive defensively at a left wing position that asks for size and strength defensively.
What the Bruins wanted to see out of Spooner more than anything else was an aggressive, determined mindset, and a willingness to push the pace with speed and assertiveness that could exert pressure on the opposing team’s defense. Spooner did some of that with an assist and a plus-2 rating in 10:38 of ice time in the win over Tampa, but it merely registers as one game moving into the right direction for a player entering some organizational crossroads.
If he can provide the speed and playmaking natural to his skills then he might remain a member of the Bruins for the foreseeable future, and that would certainly serve Spooner just fine as he’s grown comfortable in Boston.
But more development detours in his still-maturing game could lead to a new start elsewhere, and a chance to establish his skill set with a different group. Spooner holds value around the league given his promise and skating game combined with last season’s production, and there’s little debate over that simple hockey fact.
One has to wonder about those possibilities if he continues to be an ill-fitting piece for Claude Julien’s system: would Spooner be one of the main pieces for a top-4 D-man Boston has searched far and wide for over the last couple of seasons, and is it inevitably trending toward an exit with things making the way like perpetual fourth line demotions and an organizational unwillingness to keep him at his preferred center position?
One thing is for certain: Spooner has the kind of tools that aren’t exactly plentiful in the Bruins organization, and he could come back to burn the Spoked B’s, like so many other offensively gifted players, if management makes too hasty a decision with him after placing him in a challenging spot during his second full NHL season.