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It's not so easy, Ryder

Reunion with Julien key

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / July 3, 2008

Michael Ryder's ugly 2007-08 digits (one power-play goal, 14 total goals, three benchings in the first playoff round against Boston) hardly justify this number: $4 million annually over the next three years.

"Overpaid big," one scout said of the contract the former Canadiens forward signed with the Bruins Tuesday, although he likes Ryder's shot, especially his quick release.

The Bruins are hoping, however, that a familiar face can help boost those statistics back to a level worthy of the newest Bruin's paycheck, making what appears to be a gamble now turn into a dependable asset.

"First in junior, when I came up from back home, he gave me an opportunity in Hull," Ryder, a native of Bonavista, Newfoundland, said of Claude Julien, his former Quebec Major Junior Hockey League coach. "Not many people knew about me. That was pretty much where the relationship started there. He knows what kind of player I am and what I can do. It's good when the coach knows what you can do and can get the best out of you."

This fall, Julien will be Ryder's coach for the fourth time. They first clicked in Hull, where Ryder busted out for a 50-goal season in 1999-2000. They reunited in 2002-03 in Hamilton, Montreal's AHL affiliate (Ryder was the Canadiens' eighth-round choice in 1998), as the winger scored 34 goals in 69 games. In 2003-04, as a rookie for Julien's Canadiens, Ryder potted 25 goals in 81 games, then netted 30 in 2005-06.

"I got to know his strengths and how to utilize him," Julien said. "Hopefully, that will continue. Every year I've had him, he's had real good success, and we hope we'll keep going in that direction with him and make our team that much better."

Ryder, who earned $2.95 million in 2007-08, was poised to make a killing on the open market. In 2006-07, under rookie coach Guy Carbonneau, he totaled 30 goals and 28 assists for a career-best 58 points in 82 games, skating mostly on the No. 1 line with Christopher Higgins and Saku Koivu. Ryder, averaging 3:52 of power-play action per game (16:16 total ice time per match), converted 17 man-advantage strikes, fourth in the NHL behind Anaheim's Teemu Selanne, Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, and teammate Sheldon Souray. The season before, Ryder scored 18 power-play goals, more than double the output of Alex Kovalev, who was second on the Canadiens.

But in 2007-08, his contract year, Ryder's game fell off. Carbonneau separated him from Higgins and Koivu, dumped him on the fourth line on occasion, and trimmed his ice time. During the postseason, Ryder sat out three of the seven first-round games against the Bruins. In 70 regular-season games, he scored a career-low 14 goals with 17 assists, averaging 13:14 of ice time. Ryder was nonexistent on Montreal's top-ranked power play, where he scored only once while averaging 2:07 of ice time per game.

Ryder still played the body (credited with 122 hits), but his offensive presence faded. One scout classified Ryder as a one-dimensional goal scorer who doesn't play defense.

"It was definitely a tough year for me," said Ryder. "The team had actually done well, so I was happy to be a part of it. But the numbers weren't there. I'm just happy now to get a chance to play. And play with a team that shows confidence in me and takes a chance to trust me to be on the ice when I need to be."

The Bruins, snug against the salary cap, didn't have the money for a two-way difference-maker such as Marian Hossa, who agreed to a one-year, $7.4 million contract with Detroit yesterday. But the Bruins couldn't afford to stand pat and not improve their pea-shooting attack, ranked 24th in the NHL in 2007-08 (2.51 goals per game), and their 16th-ranked power play (17.6 percent efficiency rate).

So despite the red flags surrounding Ryder - dropoff in a contract year, not known as being a defensive player (minus-25 in 2006-07), high price - the Bruins believed they had to pursue the 6-foot winger to give Marc Savard a finisher and add some pop to their power play.

"He's very good at winning battles along the boards," Julien said. "Then stepping out into the slot area, protecting the puck, and shooting the puck. He's got a great release. He's gotten stronger in that area. He's a guy that's very physical as well. He's capable of throwing his weight around. So he's a good fit for us. One thing we did is we worked really hard in the offensive zone. We did create some chances, but I thought many nights, the difference in the game was lack of finish. That's where Michael comes in. He's pretty good at finishing his opportunities and will hopefully increase our goal output."

Ryder doesn't kill penalties, but he's expected to be a go-to target on the power play, where Marco Sturm led the Bruins last season with 10 goals. Ryder can station himself in the high slot, taking advantage of his quick release, but he's most effective coming off the left boards. Savard usually positions himself on the right half-wall, and he could be in play to feed cross-ice passes to Ryder.

"From the half-wall, he's pretty good at stepping up away from there and stepping toward the net," Julien said. "He's got a quick release from his off wing as well."

Ryder, pursued by two other teams late Tuesday, said he liked the security of Boston's three-year offer, indicating that other clubs might have been offering him short-term contracts. Ryder said he chose the Bruins because he liked the way they competed, especially in the playoffs, and because the Boston bosses emphasized that he'd play a significant role.

"He's a sharpshooter," Julien said. "Even last year with 14 goals, he had a lot of good opportunities. Sometimes you're a little snakebitten. You're not always given the best opportunity. We will make sure Michael will get those opportunities."

The Bruins re-signed 22-year-old forward Petteri Nokelainen to a multiyear contract. Last season, the Finnish native had career highs of seven goals, three assists, and 10 points in 57 games.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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