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Could Derek Ryan Be the Missing Piece?

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The mostly unheralded signing of Derek Ryan came and went with little early summer fanfare. A closer look tells an interesting story rife with possibility. Does he crack a Hurricanes roster that admittedly has some serious holes or is he merely a solid, much needed veteran presence in an evolving Charlotte Checkers organization?

Is he one of the answers?
Is he one of the answers?
Alex Micheu Photography

Earlier this Summer the Carolina Hurricanes signed the 5'10", 170 pound Derek Ryan and the chorus of "who", "why", and "so what" rang out across Caniac nation. Shortly thereafter the interesting tidbits on Derek's career started to trickle out.  He is the reigning scoring leader in the highest division of Swedish hockey, the SHL.  He led that league in assists, something that the playmaker-starved Canes organization desperately needs (inclusive of the Checkers).  Ryan was named Forward of the Year and also captured the SHL's MVP award.  Perhaps he was judged a bit hastily.

Hailing from Spokane Washington, Derek Ryan, as Ron Francis alluded to, took a bit of a non-traditional route to get to professional North American hockey.  Like most young, aspiring hockey players, Ryan started his serious pursuit of the game in the Canadian Hockey League, in his case with the WHL's Spokane Chiefs.  For two of those years he played for none other than Bill Peters, Carolina's current bench boss.  After playing 4 years and putting up 167 points in 216 games, he went undrafted by the NHL.  In a league known for its defense, those point totals would usually open some scout's eyes.  However, the NHL is often myopic when it comes to size and Ryan wasn't prototypical in that regard.

Whether he was preparing a back-up plan for after hockey, or using hockey to help him gain an education, the next rung on his hockey career ladder was the University of Alberta Golden Bears.  Even though CIS hockey isn't as well regarded as NCAA hockey, Ryan excelled and blossomed as a player.  He put up even more impressive offensive numbers, while piling up personal awards.  As a senior he won the CIS West Most Valuable Player award and won its scoring title as well.  He was also named to the CIS All-Canada First Team.

It turned out that Derek Ryan wasn't done with hockey, but NHL hockey wasn't banging his door down.  So he went to Europe and played in Austria (Erste Bank Eishockey Liga).  Ryan began to turn heads scoring 90 goals with 109 assists in 3 regular seasons.  Moreover he was proving to be quite a playoff performer posting 31 points in 22 contests.  His final year in the league found him garnering more awards.  He led the Austrian league in goals and won another MVP award.

By his own admission Ryan understood the level of competition.  He rated the Austrian league somewhere between the ECHL and the AHL.  And while he and his family enjoyed life in Europe, it seemed clear that Derek was looking to get back to the North American game.  His comments in a December 2013 interview clearly show his ambition and desire to continue moving forward to more competitive leagues.  As has been reported, he did just that advancing to the SHL, probably the 3rd best hockey league in the world, and continued his run of impressive scoring numbers.

With a new 2-way NHL contract in hand, Derek Ryan is now the property of the Carolina Hurricanes.  Opportunity knocks on a couple of levels.  The Canes clearly need playmaking help, something that Ryan has proven is part of his arsenal.  He's a good skater, quick and shifty, a good stick-handler, and an accurate shooter.  Could he slot in on the 2nd line as part of a Skinner/Rask/Ryan scoring trio?  Could he even be part of the top line, feeding Eric and Jordan Staal?  Derek Ryan is no 4th line grinder and the Hurricanes have 3rd line forwards coming out of their ears.  One would have to think that if he impresses in camp and makes the team, it's as a top 6 guy.

Ryan's other path, seemingly more likely, is shouldering one of the top two pivot roles in Charlotte.  After showing some serious potential, his likely competition for those centerman spots is another newcomer, Erik Karlsson, the 4th rounder from the Canes' 2012 draft class.  The incumbents include Brody Sutter, Brendan Woods, and Patrick Brown.  Sutter and Brown seem more suited to 3rd and 4th line roles and Woods likely will find his future as a power forward on the wing.  With Ryan feeding two of Boychuk, Shugg, McGinn, or Di Giuseppe, the Checkers could suddenly reinvigorate their anemic scoring.  He could then become a very good depth option for the big club, perhaps even forcing his way back into the NHL conversation.

Derek Ryan seems to have the skills that fill a well defined need throughout the Carolina Hurricanes organization.  Can he parlay those skills into a full time role with the Canes?  In the ever evolving NHL that has rediscovered players of skill and skating in lieu of mere size, he has the opportunity.  It will be up to him to grab it and skate with it.