SAN JOSE, Calif. — The move comes out of nowhere sometimes.
Ryan Spooner will be taking the puck up the left side of the ice, and all of a sudden he’ll open up, his body shifting, his speed maintained. He did it in Nashville Dec. 23, on his third assist of the game, a 10-to-2 turn that he uses unlike most in hockey.
It’s part of what differentiates the young player, the speed and skating ability that make him both fun to watch and an asset for a team that doesn’t have either of those in abundance.
There is, Bruins coach Claude Julien said, “a lot in his game that is pleasing to our eyes.”
Spooner first started practicing the move his first year in juniors, half as a joke. He had used it, sparingly, growing up. And then, suddenly, the scoring chances came, the defensemen confused and not able to adjust. He kept using it.
“He was always a special player, he was always a good player,” said Pat Malloy, the director of hockey for the PEAK Academy in Ontario, who has worked with Spooner for the last seven or eight years on his skating. “He sees things coming at him and processes the game so well I think he started to use it more as a tool to dictate terms and the pace of play with the puck when he had it.”
It’s a move seen occasionally around the league, from Jeff Skinner in Carolina, whom Spooner grew up playing against, and Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. But theirs are not quite the same. Crosby, for instance, uses it more as a power move, rolling off players.
“With Ryan, he’ll be coming through the neutral zone and he’ll just sort of open up and make himself available,” Malloy said. “He’s just got that uncanny ability to maintain his speed, and part of that is because he’s very balanced, his center of gravity, which in hockey is skating with his hips. He’s very good at maintaining his balance and his weight distribution through his hips, and it allows him to do some things to make himself available for pucks when maybe some other players are closed off.”
Spooner ponders aloud whether that ability, that ease on skates, came from a few months of figure skating back when he was 8 or 9. He tagged along with his older sister to a rink near his house in Ottawa. It was public skating, perhaps $10 to skate with a couple of instructors sprinkled in.
“It doesn’t really take long,” Spooner said. “A lot of it has to do with opening up your hips in order to go into the spins and stuff.”
He stopped after he got spiked in the shin with a figure skate.
“I think I just kind of learned to use my edges,” Spooner said. “Obviously everyone here can skate, but there are some guys that are better at using their edges than others. I guess I learned at a younger age and just built it into my game. I think sometimes it gives me a bit of an advantage out there.”
Spooner is now 22 games into his NHL career, the last 16 coming since he replaced the injured Chris Kelly on the roster. He is, as he quickly will mention, still without a goal. But he has 10 assists, one on the winner in Saturday night’s 1-0 triumph in San Jose, and has shown flashes of what he can bring to the Bruins in the future.
That said, he’s still far from a finished product. He knows that he needs to start taking the puck to the net, including sometimes when he uses that opening move. He knows he needs to work on his two-way game, a key component for any Bruins player.
“We don’t expect [players] to change,” Julien said. “We just expect them to adapt and there’s areas still in his game that he can improve. We don’t ask people to do what they can’t. We just ask them to take on some responsibilities and we feel that as a team, as an organization, that’s what’s helped us get to where we are today, one of the elite teams in the league.
“He certainly has shown us his willingness, right now it’s about for him to continue to show some consistency in that part of the game. There’s some games he’s a little bit more involved than others. So we’ve got to keep reeling him in.”
Spooner needs minutes. He needs experience. That much is clear.
But there are things in his game that give him advantages, that portend well for a future in the NHL. That move, for instance, can be used to leave defensemen confused and reaching.
“For me, I feel like I get a little bit faster when I do that sometimes,” Spooner said. “Tricks the D a little bit sometimes, they probably don’t really know what I’m doing.”
Said Julien, “His playmaking ability, his skating, the way he can kind of open up and pivot really puts the other team’s D’s on their heels because they don’t know whether he’s going to continue or whether he’s looking to make a play. That’s hard to defend once you get to the offensive zone.”
And it’s crucial for someone who stands just 5 feet 10 inches and weighs just 180 pounds. He needs that ability to be evasive, to be shifty, to be hard to knock off pucks. As Malloy said, “Mobility for him and his ability to create that extra bit of time for himself allows his playmaking ability and hockey sense to take over. As a sub-6-foot player, it’s very important that he’s able to get to areas that he wants to get to in his mind, and his body and his skating and his puck skills need to be able to take him there.
“There’s things that we work on that he does inherently that a lot of people don’t see every day in the sense that he’s very fluid with his hips and his ability to sort of maintain his center of gravity and allow his body to work around his hips is something that’s pretty tricky to gauge. It creates a slipperiness about the way he plays.”
And Spooner is committed to making that even better. Malloy said that usually it’s only a couple of days after Spooner’s season has ended that he gets a call from the player. “I’m home,” Spooner says. “When can we get ice?”
“He’s much like a kid like that,” Malloy said. “He just has a joy for playing. He’s very happy to be on the ice, and I don’t think he views it as work, per se.”
So they get on the ice. They work on matching his puck skills to his skating ability. They work on his edges and making sure he’s strong on pucks. They work on his hand skills. They work on getting him to shoot the puck more. As Malloy said, “We want to make sure there’s a shooter’s mentality,” along with the technical ability to execute the shot.
“He surprises me all the time,” Malloy said. “He’s so committed to getting better. He’s so committed to wanting to be an elite-level player that that fire brings him back and it challenges me to come and evaluate his game, evaluate his movements, and see what the progression, the next evolution is.
“Because he doesn’t want to become stagnant. He wants to continue to grow as a player. And that’s an awesome challenge for me. It’s a pleasure to work with a guy that’s that committed to getting better.”