Not-so-tough act to follow
Ryder's 30-goal campaign included his first-career NHL hat trick in a 5-0 win over the Flyers on Feb. 5.
MONTREAL - When one of the last players chosen in their given draft year comes out of nowhere to light up the NHL and almost claim the Calder Trophy, some might attribute it to beginner's luck. But in Michael Ryder's case, his breakthrough season in 2003-04 was only the beginning.
A lot has happened since Ryder was chosen in the eighth round, 216th overall by the Canadiens in 1998. Armed with a well-worn hockey passport that includes stamps from not only his AHL days in both Quebec City and Hamilton, but even Tallahassee and Mississippi of the East Coast Hockey League, the late-blooming winger burst onto the scene with the Canadiens as a 23-year-old in 2003-04.
Twenty-five goals and 63 points later, Ryder fell just short of becoming the first Canadiens freshman to earn Rookie of the Year honors since Ken Dryden in 1972. After leading all rookies in virtually every offensive category, his quest for the Calder was derailed only by goalie Andrew Raycroft's brilliant season with the Bruins.
Ryder's aspirations of building on his first-year success were then dashed by the onset of the NHL lockout in the fall of 2004. While most players chose to wait out the stalemate between the league and the players' union in hopes of an agreement being reached in time to salvage at least a portion of the 2004-05 season, Ryder knew that sitting at home with his fingers crossed wasn't for him.
"It was important to me to play and be ready regardless of when the NHL was going to start up again," he said. "It didn't take me long to figure out that I wanted to play somewhere, anywhere, instead of waiting around."
That somewhere proved to be a long way from Montreal or his hometown of Bonavista, Nfld., as Ryder ended up packing his bags for Sweden. He immediately found a fit with the Leksands Stars, piling up a team-leading 27 goals and 48 points in only 32 games.
"If you would have told me that some day I would be playing hockey in Sweden, I never would've believed it," said Ryder, who at least had Canadiens teammate Francis Bouillon for company on the Swedish squad. "But it was hockey and it sure helped keep me in shape.
"I was definitely one of the lucky ones who caught on somewhere right away," admitted Ryder. "A bunch of guys waited until the season was officially wiped out before seeing what was out there, but by then it became even tougher to join a team in Europe."
Ryder's decision not to sulk during the lockout served him well. Unlike the bulk of his rookie class, Ryder did ultimately manage to pick up where he left off. The same can't be said for fellow 2004 Calder candidates Trent Hunter, Tuomo Ruutu and Ryan Malone, who due to everything from injuries to reduced ice-time weren't able to replicate their stellar NHL debuts.
The poster boy for the hard luck that befell the Class of 2004, ironically, was Calder winner Raycroft, who after being bumped from the Bruins crease first by Hannu Toivonen and then Tim Thomas this past season, might now even find himself with a new NHL address in 2006-07.
Aside from Ryder, the only other exceptions to the sophomore slump in 2006 were Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins and Carolina's Eric Staal, who was nowhere near being a Calder candidate with only 11 goals in 2003-04, but exploded for a 100-point season in 2005-06.
"I don't know about there being any kind of sophomore jinx out there, but what mattered to me was building on 2003-04," said Ryder. "I think to be successful you have to want to prove yourself every year. Two years ago was two years ago. I knew I had to come in and approach this season like it was my first."
Whatever Ryder did, it certainly worked. In addition to becoming only the second Hab to score 30 goals since 1998-99, the 26-year-old winger almost set a new club record with 18 power-play goals, just one shy of Mats Naslund's franchise mark set back in 1985-86.
As the Canadiens' top sniper, Ryder now also finds himself way up on Bob Gainey's summertime to-do list as an impending restricted free agent. Given his deadly aim with a puck, Ryder shouldn't have any difficulty finding the dotted line of a new contract in the coming months.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com