It’s the mark of somebody with true character and fighting spirit that they continue to grind, work and compete even when the odds seem continually stacked up against them.
Ryan Spooner has been in that situation for much of his career in Boston, with trade rumors seemingly associated with him non-stop over the last few years. Yet there was always a sense of untapped potential locked within his game. The Bruins have continually moved him off his natural center position over the last couple of seasons, and it's clearly been a challenge for him bouncing back and forth between center and wing.
The Bruins signed one of their prospects in center Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson last spring, a two-way center that is ostensibly looked at as Spooner’s eventual replacement on the NHL roster. All of it led up to the Bruins avoiding arbitration and signing the 26-year-old to just a one-year contract this summer. The organization seemed to be putting some limitations on Spooner’s place in the long term future with the B’s, and also issuing a tacit challenge that he needed to elevate his game.
For all those reasons and more Spooner knew this season needed to be different, and full credit to him to this point for going out and making a change where it matters most: on the ice.
“This is kind of the year for me where if I don’t do well then I might not be here anymore, so I kind of need to focus on the things that I can be a lot better at and go from there,” said Spooner all the way back in September while recognizing that he needed to be better for the Bruins. “I just needed to be a lot harder player to play against, and if I do that then it’s going to help me out. It’s the flaw in the game that I see for me.”
Add in groin issues that began cropping up with Spooner in training camp this season, and some players might easily have faded into the background with one too many things working against them.
Spooner hasn't faded away for the Bruins, however, and has bounced back to become a regular contributor for the B’s whether it’s at center or on the wing. He has played well centering Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork during the six games that David Krejci was out of the lineup with an upper body injury, and Spooner lit up the scoreboard with a pair of goals in Saturday night’s win in Ottawa after shifting back to the right wing.
Clearly some of Spooner’s natural talent is coming to the fore. In his last seven games, Spooner has two goals and seven points in seven games with a plus-5 rating, and he’s done it almost entirely during 5-on-5 play with just two of his eight points this month coming on the power play. That part speaks to competitiveness in 1-on-1 battles and a willingness to stick his nose in the danger areas more of this season than ever before.
It’s something that Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy has noticed from the beginning of the season, and it was clearly evident in Spooner’s game when he was healthy enough to show it dating back to the preseason.
“I think [Spooner] is committed to trying to play the right way, and help and do his job defensively away from the puck, whether it is back-checking and reloading well and getting in the shooting lane. I see a commitment there, and when we put him on the wing when [David] Krejci was in, he was willing to do that,” said Cassidy. “I think he enjoys the atmosphere right now and wants to be a part of the winning program here. It is just a matter of his health, and now it seems to be he is getting through these games without any reoccurrences.
“I think he is a different player. I don’t know if there was a little bit of something going on with him to start health-wise, only he could speak to that. He was definitely hurt at the start, trying to play through it. He is a guy who needs his legs; that is his greatest asset.”
Spooner really exemplified his improvements in one play on Saturday night when he blocked a Ben Harpur shot, and then sped the other way for a breakaway score against the Senators that helped bust open the eventual blowout win. It’s that little extra pinch of puck battle and shift-to-shift feistiness that’s allowed Spooner to be much more productive during even strength play as of late, essentially pushing Anders Bjork out of the top-9 as a result.
One could easily envision a situation in the future where Bjork perhaps gets a stint in Providence to log big minutes, play in all situations, and continue to develop his game to be more prepared for the NHL level. Spooner is playing like the speedy, playmaking offensive asset that most projected Bjork to be at the start of the season, and upping his value around the league.
It may end with Spooner being dealt at the deadline if he continues to hit a peak entering the prime of his hockey career, or it might end up in him finally securing a spot in Boston’s lineup with no qualms or qualifiers. He could have some value on the trade market as a speedy, versatile player with an offensive bent, and an ability to improve a team’s power play from his spot along the half-wall. Spooner could also play his way into being part of the picture in Boston by simply, consistently playing with the same competitiveness and assertiveness on the ice he’s shown with the Black and Gold over the last month.
Spooner has always had the potential within him to become a consistent staple in the Bruins lineup that can provide the kind of speed and offensive creativity that they’re always looking for. Now he’s beginning to consistently show it at a time when it’s “put up or shut up” time in his Bruins career, and it’s a credit to him that he’s battled his way into current contributing position after a tough start to his season.