There are so many reasons to be leery of head coach Claude Julien’s apparent decision to place Michael Ryder on Marc Savard’s right wing as the star center makes his return to the Bruins’ lineup after a Grade 2 concussion.
While nothing is written in stone with Julien’s line formations, he skated Ryder next to Savard for two straight practices, including today, while swapping out Vladimir Sobotka for Daniel Paille on the left flank from one day to the next.
The Bruins signed Ryder in July 2008 with the initial attention of him providing the set-up sensation Savard with a perennial puck-burier. That didn’t quite work out, so by putting those two back together to start the Eastern Conference semifinal series with Philadelphia, Julien is taking a bit of a risk.
Not only hasn’t Ryder produced on Savard’s wing in the brief stints the two have had together, Ryder has never even resembled the same player that was a 27-goal sniper last season next to David Krejci and bounced back from an awful regular season to register three points (two goals) in the six games against Buffalo last series skating next to Sobotka.
“I don’t think I’ve got to change anything. I’ve just got to play the same way, keep skating, being physical and shooting the puck,” Ryder told me after practice today for a feature I was writing for ESPNBoston.com. “I know Savvy’s going to find me when he gets it. … I’m not sure what’s going to happen (on the left side), but we’re just getting used to each other in practice still. Me and Savvy played together a bit this year. Hopefully we can get some chemistry. Savvy’s going to be excited to play and I’ve just got to make sure I feed off him.”
Turning those words about not changing could prove tougher than uttering them for Ryder. After all, he talked numerous times over the course of his disappointing 18-goal campaign about bearing down, working hard and getting on some semblance of a role. That never happened until the intensity of the playoffs, and a spot next to the hard-hitting, relentless forechecker Sobotka finally gave Ryder enough of a jolt to get him going.
While Savard is no shrinking violet on the forecheck, he is not Sobotka. Plus he’s still getting up to speed after two months out of action. Ryder cannot rely on his centerman creating as much havoc as Sobotka did to create turnovers and scoring chances. He’s going to have to get his nose dirty regardless of what his linemates are doing.
Ryder spent less than a handful of games at Savard’s side this season. Last year, they were together for the first six games of the year, and oddly enough Savard did the scoring (five goals) and Ryder was the disher (four assists). Then Ryder was bumped to Patrice Bergeron’s line and finally, and most successfully, to David Krejci’s trio.
There were a couple other problems the Savard-Ryder tandem had, and really it’s going to be up to Ryder to correct them to make this combination work this time around. For a guy with a “great shot” (Savard’s words) who’s main task is to score, he tends to pick his stick up off the ice and not be ready to receive passes at time. He also has a tendency to be gun shy when he goes get the puck on his stick.
As Julien eases Savard back into the fray, the center is obviously going to be limited in his ability to affect all areas of the game. He’s going to be on the ice mostly to create goals with his proficient passing. So if Ryder’s not going to serve as a big-time finisher, he’ll be rendering two players useless. Not to mention there’s going to be an onus on Ryder to make sure that his defensive game is at peak performance because Savard might need some time to catch up to the pace on the backcheck and while battling in the Bruins’ end. When he’s not scoring, Ryder can let his play in the other zones lag. He has to make sure he’s making a contribution somehow, regardless of how the bounces go on Boston’s attack.
Ryder said he doesn’t think that playing with a finesse center like Savard is going to change his game, but we know from watching Milan Lucic recently that sometimes guys can fall into a “skill” role and forget to do the other things that make them successful. When you play with a dazzling offensive talent, the tendency is to get really cute with the puck. But Ryder has to play as north-south as he can, even if Savard’s trending east-west.
If Julien opts for an extremely responsible defensive player (Paille probably being the most qualified) to round out the line, that’ll make it a bit easier on Savard and Ryder to create some chemistry with the puck. You just have to hope that Ryder doesn’t revert to his regular-season form and waste Savard’s energy, or if he does Julien, recognizes it and gets Ryder back with a more rugged center and Savard in a trio with someone that can add to his assist total (as few and far between as they are on the Bruins’ roster).