Ryan Dzingel went into training camp this season hungry and eager to make an impression.
With a brand new coaching staff in place, not only was it a clean slate for returning full-time players, but it was a giant opportunity for prospects to show they were ready to take another big step forward.
Dzingel took that opportunity and ran with it.
“What I liked in camp was that he came in on a mission,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher after yesterday’s practice. “That’s the first thing you see as a coach; the guys who are on a mission, the guys who are scared to succeed, the guys who are doubting themselves, the guys who are thinking too much.
“I think he made the team in Winnipeg playing against Byfuglien. He went after Byfuglien three times, finished his check, went first into the corner, where a lot of guys just fake like they’re going. You know, you’ve got 260 pounds coming at you and you’re half the size and you’re still going and you’re first on puck and you come out with the puck, and he did that three particular times where everybody, the players and the staff, recognized ‘okay, this kid wants it.’”
Along with Phil Varone’s outstanding offensive performance, Dzingel’s progress and drive was all anyone could talk about during the preseason. And while Varone and Dzingel’s play in exhibition games won them both an NHL roster spot for the season opener, one fizzled out quite early on and the other did the exact opposite.
Dzingel had shown numerous flashes of brilliance during his second stint in Ottawa last year, which lasted a total of 29 games from early February until the end of the season, but it was difficult for him to find a stable rhythm. The Wheaton, Illinois native was playing nearly equal time on three different lines throughout his time with the big club and rarely breaking the 13-minute mark in games under head coach Dave Cameron.
Fast forward to the 2016-17 campaign and the 24-year-old has gained the trust of the coaching staff and the attention of the fanbase.
Now, playing consistent minutes in the top six and finding a position on the team’s second power play unit, Dzingel has been able to show what he’s got in his arsenal. Known as one of the more exciting players on the team, even his boss is in awe of some of the talent he’s displayed at the halfway point.
“I think he’s got maybe one of the best tools in terms of speed that I’ve seen in a long time,” claimed Boucher. “It’s very deceptive, too. He’s fast, but you don’t realize it sometimes and he just goes through people like ‘how did he just do that?’ His ability to keep skating with the puck through traffic is tremendous and that gets you something pretty good in today’s game.”
In late November, Senators management told Dzingel that he’d be staying with the club for the rest of the season. He wasn’t just an experiment anymore.
No more road trips back to Binghamton, no more elevator rides up to the press box and no more looking back at the next guy in line, waiting to take his place.
A weight immediately lifted off his shoulders.
“Last year I thought I was going to be scratched every other night,” said Dzingel, who is now living with teammate Derick Brassard in Patrick Wiercioch’s old house. “So it was nerve racking. You get a goal or an assist and it’s a sigh of relief that you’re going to be in the lineup the next day.
“Every time you’re playing and you’re fighting for a job or contract it’s always going to be in the back of your mind, but now that I’ve solidified my spot here, it’s more just helping the team win than trying to make the lineup.”
Playing with Kyle Turris for over 300 minutes so far, Dzingel has found chemistry with the team’s No. 1 centre. And since early December, the two have teamed up with Bobby Ryan to form one of Boucher’s go-to trios.
So you could say he’s fitting in.
But with the biggest workload of his career, has he been able to keep up the same tempo? After receiving such praise from the higher-ups, has his desire and urgency differed?
It’s not rare to see young players’ development compromised by a false sense of comfort and satisfaction.
“It hasn’t changed,” stated Boucher. “He’s prepared to have success right now. He’s still young, still has to learn a lot, but I think there’s a lot of hope there for him to continue what he’s doing and even better in the future.”
Although it was rather short, Dzingel’s road to solidified NHLer did feature some time in the minors. After spending three years at Ohio State University, he was immediately assigned to develop in the AHL.
He had the tools, the smarts and definitely the work ethic, but the organization wanted him to round out his game and become more of a two-way player.
“You always get frustrated if you’re not where you want to be in life, in any career you have, so obviously I was frustrated down there and I wanted to be up,” said Dzingel. “Now, looking back it was a good experience.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to come in and not play much and try to make a name for yourself. There’s so many guys in the AHL right now that could play here. It’s all about opportunity. I think I got lucky with coach taking favour to me a little bit to start and (he) showed faith in me and that helped me a lot.”
Now, nearly halfway through the season, Dzingel has racked up 20 (8,12) points and has shown that he’s extremely valuable at even strength. His rapid climb up the depth charts has been profitable for the organization and thrilling for the fans.
On a team that many have labelled boring for their scoring droughts and obsession with defensive structure, Dzingel guarantees entertainment. His wherewithal to create goals (he leads the team with 27 individual 5v5 scoring chances) with elite speed and determination is the main reason why he’s quickly become a must-watch player in the nation’s capital.
“Last year, I’d go around town and no one would really know who I was,” Dzingel admitted. “I guess, getting a little name for myself and playing well means a lot. You obviously want to be a fan favourite, you want to do the things that make the team successful and do things the right way to make them happy. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help the team win, which in turn is going to (make) half the people like you, so it’s been nice.”