When Bobby Ryan was acquired via trade from the Ducks in July 2013, fans of the Ottawa Senators had one main expectation for the guy: goals. He had always been touted as a sniper who just wasn't getting the chance in Anaheim because Corey Perry already played that role alongside playmaker Ryan Getzlaf. In Ottawa, Jason Spezza was a playmaker who had lacked a true sniper on his wing since the departure of Dany Heatley. Bobby Ryan could slide right in and be the goal-scoring winger Milan Michalek had never quite become.
Ryan clearly had a down year last year, managing 23 goals and 25 assists in 70 games before deciding to have season-ending surgery for a sports hernia injury that had been affecting him since December. He also had played most of the season with Kyle Turris as his centre instead of Spezza, which likely didn't help his offensive production. When Spezza was traded in the off-season, it wasn't entirely clear what to expect of Ryan in the coming season. The role he's taken on this year is completely unlike anything I would have predicted coming in.
This may be the most controversial article I've ever written, so I want to lead off with this statement: No one will ever be Daniel Alfredsson. He spent so many years as the heart and soul of this team, and will be forever revered in Sens folklore.
With that out of the way, I've noticed several traits in Ryan this season that remind me a lot of Alfie. For starters, he's the best right wing on the team, but rarely plays on the top line. Alfredsson played the last few seasons on the wing of Turris, helping in Turris' growth into a top-line centre. He took on the role of mentor for a developing centre. This year, Ryan's taken on a near-identical role, being the veteran on Mika Zibanejad's wing, helping the 21-year-old to adapt to a top-six role. Not to mention that lately they've had Mike Hoffman as the third on that line, another inexperienced player who no doubt is learning from Ryan. When the Sens needed offence late in a game, Alfie would be moved up to the top line, same way this team uses Ryan as part of the late-game push when the team needs a goal to tie.
Alfie always had a lot of skill, but was known primarily for his immense work ethic. He was capable of pulling out an awesome skill move and reminding everyone what incredible raw talent he had, but what endeared him most to fans was the effort he put in. You never saw him quit on the backcheck. So many games when the Sens looked like they were down and out, you'd see Alfie put the team on his back and will them back into the game. Lately, I've been seeing a lot of that effort level in Ryan. For example, in overtime against the Blues, Ryan cut in and hit the post, and then on the same play rushed back to his own end and dove, stripping the puck from the opposing forward to negate a 2-on-1.
People think of Alfie as being clutch. If anyone was going to come through when the Sens needed a hero, it would be him. You can think of his Game 5 conference-clinching overtime goal against the Sabres or his Game 3 shorthanded game-tying goal in the final minutes against the Penguins. In the latter, pretty much everyone had written off the Sens, except for Alfie. On Thursday against the Kings, the Sens were down 2-0 and had just failed to generate anything on a powerplay. The team was looking lifeless, and then Ryan proceeded to do this:
When the team needed a spark, Bobby provided it. The last three shootouts the Sens have gone to, Ryan has been the team's third shooter. And in two out of three, he scored to clinch the game for the team.
Alfie also gained a reputation for making the players around him better. This season, Ryan has become much more noticeable as a playmaker. Zibanejad got a lot of praise for having a very impressive four-point night vs the Canucks. Lost a little bit in the shuffle was the fact that Ryan had three assists in that game. Zibanejad and Ryan have been showing chemistry as of late, and that was the first game in which it really showed up on the scoresheet. It took a bit of patience, but Ryan has been helping Zibanejad grow into his own. He's helping the Sens to have two legitimate scoring-threat lines.
Alfie was also loved for his charity work, especially his work in promoting mental health awareness. Ryan took a year to get his feet wet in the capital, but less than a month after signing a seven-year extension, he bought a suite for every Sens home game until the end of that extension, to be available for kids from CHEO. He also got a lot of people excited on Twitter by getting involved in the Bonk's Mullet Sens Money on the Board campaign:
I know it's near-heresy to equate anyone to Alfie. I think that Ryan might be the closest thing the Sens have right now, though: a skilled, hard-working right-winger who makes those around him better and can be the hero when necessary. Ryan said he wanted a bigger role this season, and management said they needed him to become a leader. In my opinion, he's become way more of a leader than anyone had hoped.
The biggest thing that made Alfie stand out was the fact that he kept doing all of this past 40 years of age. I expect to see a drop-off in Ryan's play before he's 35 (the end of his contract). But for now, Ryan is contributing in ways he was never expected to. The A on his jersey in the last couple games shows that the coaching staff have noticed the same thing as me: Ryan has become a leader on this team. For a team that's lost two captains in two years, this can only mean good things.