fb-pixel Skip to main content
Fluto Shinzawa | On hockey

Ryan Spooner is falling short of expectations

Bruins forward Ryan Spooner (left) has had difficulty gaining any traction this season.
Bruins forward Ryan Spooner (left) has had difficulty gaining any traction this season.Winslow Townson/Associated Press/File 2016

Something is wrong with Ryan Spooner.

The center who appeared to own a flammable blend of straight-line speed, deceptive movement, and silky hands is nowhere to be found. The skill set that once defined Spooner as a top-six forward has been replaced by a decaf version that has him dying on the vine as the Bruins’ No. 4 left wing.

Spooner has three goals and four assists in 20 games. This would be a treasure chest for fourth-line mate Jimmy Hayes. But it is nowhere close to the production Spooner and the Bruins expected of the formerly skilled center through a quarter of the year.

Advertisement



In 2015-16, his first full NHL season, Spooner scored 13 goals and 36 assists. He scored 17 of his 49 points on the power play, which he ran as the first-unit quarterback on the right half-boards.

Spooner was also productive during five-on-five play, where he averaged 2.01 points per 60 minutes, third-most on the team after David Krejci (2.12) and David Pastrnak (2.06).

Spooner set the standard high enough last season for his employer to expect even more this year. Yet he is on pace for just 27 points. It is why Spooner’s leash, always short to begin with, is practically coiled around his neck with no signs of slackening.

“You’re going to have to ask him,” coach Claude Julien answered when asked what needed to happen for Spooner to play to his potential. “Obviously I’m not satisfied with his game right now. He can answer for himself.”

Spooner turned down an interview request after Saturday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena. Murray Kuntz, Spooner’s agent, declined to comment.

The answers, specifically to the question of why Spooner’s production has plummeted, that organization and player are wary of providing can be found on the ice. On Friday against Calgary, Spooner started as the No. 2 left wing alongside Krejci and David Backes. Spooner skated just four shifts on the second line, including one that ended with a Sam Bennett goal.

Advertisement



By the second period, Julien dropped Spooner to the fourth line with Hayes and Dominic Moore. Spooner was also off the No. 1 power-play unit, replaced by Brad Marchand. In 10:52 of play, third-least among team forwards, the fourth-line left wing landed one shot on net and missed with two others. It left Spooner scoreless for the fifth straight game, the longest run of zeros he’s posted this season.

Spooner’s game is leaking oil in all areas. He’s not scoring. He’s having trouble, especially on the wing, finding room to rev his wheels and push back defensemen. Spooner’s defensive coverage, so-so at best, has crumbled to the point where extended cycles by opposing players have become a regular thing.

Amid the decline of his game, Spooner’s become an on-ice version of Edward Snowden: a man without a home. The center position he believed he would play behind Patrice Bergeron and Krejci has been ceded to Riley Nash. He’s played out of position at left wing on Lines 2 through 4 with similar results, which is to say not much of them. On every shift, Spooner looks terrified of making a mistake.

Spooner, 24, is in his fifth season of pro hockey. Spooner is an adult who can no longer cite youth as the reason he cannot string together consistent shifts or grasp the tenets of play without the puck.

Advertisement



Spooner’s slide in play is partly on him. But it’s also on his boss. As it is in all cases, the truth is somewhere in between.

It took Julien just three games, the last of which was a 4-1 win over Winnipeg, to declare Spooner unfit to play in a fourth. Julien made Spooner a healthy scratch for the Oct. 20 home opener against New Jersey. It was a prompt dismissal of a natural center who spent the first three games playing left wing.

Since then, Spooner’s bounced between positions and lines, made to be the primary fall guy when pucks go wide of the opposing goal and slip into the Bruins’ net. Part of a coach’s responsibility is to maximize his players’ potential. So far with Spooner, Julien has fallen short.

The Bruins need Spooner to return to the level he’s played at in the past. One of the team’s most damaging shortcomings is its reliance on the first line. Spooner’s history of producing as a secondary scorer is proof that he could help put pucks in nets when defenses train their targets on Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak.

But at the rate of his play, it’s impossible to say whether Spooner can glue together the crumbled pieces of his game. His confidence is shot. He’s thinking through every play instead of relying on instinct. Every shift has become a grind for Spooner as he wonders where the next one will land him: on another line, at a different position, or on the bench.

Advertisement



This is an important year for Spooner. He will be a restricted free agent on July 1, 2017, when his two-year, $1.9 million contract expires. If Spooner’s numbers don’t improve, a significant raise, via standard negotiations or arbitration, is not in his future. Neither is a return to the team that drafted him No. 45 overall in 2010.

Spooner is hurting the Bruins more than helping them. That doesn’t usually lead to an invitation to stay.

.   .   .

Zdeno Chara will miss his third straight game Sunday against Tampa Bay because of a lower-body injury. Julien termed Chara as day-to-day . . . Marchand did not complete Saturday’s practice. Adam McQuaid dropped Marchand with a shot halfway through the session. Marchand limped to the bench with some assistance from his teammates. After spending several moments on the bench, Marchand retreated to the dressing room. Tim Schaller took some of Marchand’s shifts with Bergeron and Pastrnak. Julien did not know whether Marchand would be available for Sunday’s game.


Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.