Ryan Spooner has a history with interim B’s coach Bruce Cassidy. (Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)
It took all of five minutes before Bruins interim coach Bruce Cassidy talked about his familiarity with Ryan Spooner during Tuesday’s impromptu introductory press conference at Warrior Ice Arena.
Cassidy, the replacement for head coach Claude Julien, who was relieved of his duties after 10 years on the job, talked about his ability to hopefully get a player like Spooner going. That would be a win for not only the Black and Gold, but the embattled Spooner as well.
He would never say it directly, and even though he still won’t, but Spooner,who has just eight goals and 27 points in 54 games this season, never seemed all that comfortable under Julien and vice versa. Consider this: Even after Spooner’s best NHL season, a 2015-16 campaign in which he scored 13 goals and totaled 49 points in 80 games while playing hurt for most of the second half, Spooner lost out on his spot as the club’s third-line center this season without much of a chance at keeping it.
It’s not like he lost out on the spot to big fish free agent pickup David Backes, who has played on the right side of the B’s second line this season, either. Julien put Austin Czarnik, Riley Nash, and Dominic Moore in that spot before he put Spooner back there.
“Last season as a centerman I had some ups and downs, but as a whole I think it was a pretty good season for me,” Spooner said.
It never made a ton of sense to me, and you always got the feeling that it made even less sense to Spooner, who was pigeonholed into a top-six winger role (something he never necessarily crushed) from the start of training camp, and then benched or demoted down to the fourth line when things didn’t work out. And when that happened, Spooner would often fall back to a familiar refrain where he called the situation out for being what it is, and that he could only hope to improve to the coach’s satisfaction.
“I think at the end of the day [Julien] wanted me to be the best player I can be, and that’s fine,” Spooner said.
But under Cassidy, it’s been two practices at center in as many days for the 25-year-old Spooner.
The first came with Matt Beleskey and David Backes as his wingers, and the other with Frank Vatrano and Jimmy Hayes. Each proposed line has it’s strengths and weaknesses (the first edition is a little heavy-footed but can win battles while the second one is a lot of offense but very little defensive presence), but the focus of each line was getting No. 51 back into a situation where he could succeed, because that simply hasn’t happened through the first 54 games of this current season. It was necessary, too.
“I’ll speak to this year. I think moving from center to the wing, I don’t know if he’s bought into it if that’s the right term or is embracing that role, only he can answer that. But that’s part of it,” Cassidy, Spooner’s coach in Providence for four different seasons, said of Spooner’s time on the wing. “Wherever you play on the ice, this is a difficult league, especially as a young guy. You have to embrace the role you’re put in to have a level of success and he did at times. I thought he was good at times on the wing.”
There were moments where it seemed to work, but it never materialized into long stretches of success, especially not on a second line with David Krejci and Backes that really seemed stuck in the mud through the neutral zone at times.
“You just have to put the work in on the walls, and the willingness to go there and embrace that part of the job. Every position has a kind of a lousy part of the job to it, right? I mean defensemen going back with their face up against the glass, does anybody enjoy that? No. Wingers fighting for pucks on the boards, it’s not great, but you gotta do it,” Cassidy said of the work that comes with being a winger versus a center. “There’s time he needs to go to the net. I think those are the areas that the staff has tried to encourage him to do more of when he doesn’t have the puck because he’s a guy that’s used to being a centerman who makes plays with the pucks and has the puck in the neutral zone and that’s where it changes as a winger.”
At 5-foot-10 and 184 pounds, Spooner is not your prototypical winger, especially not for what’s considered the norm to Krejci’s left (be it Beleskey or Milan Lucic before that), and that’s been one of the biggest problems for Spooner as a winger, especially under Julien, who wanted basically everybody on his roster to play a heavy, three-zone game.
“I think at heart, and he’d have to answer that, but I think he’d prefer to be a centerman,” Cassidy said of Spooner. “So we either have to do a better job selling him the value of being a winger or he goes back to the middle and see if we can get the best.”
Spooner’s coach during his formative pro years, in which he morphed from a one-dimensional scorer to an accountable skill player that thrived under the situations Cassidy put him in as a go-to scoring option, the Ottawa native likes this new style.
“The guys liked him,” Spooner said of Cassidy. “He likes to play with pace, and he’s more of an offensive coach.”
Two things that benefit Spooner. Especially if it’s in the middle of the ice and with the puck distributed off his stick.