Perhaps it is nothing but the after-effects of a lockout-shortened half-season.
Earlier this year, when the NHL finally started up its compressed, 48-game 2013 season, everything seemed to happen faster than usual. Gone were the usual January dog days; instead, there was instant urgency – every game mattered, every stumble a tragedy.
And so, even though the 2013-14 season will run a full 82 games, there are already palpitations at work.
In Philadelphia, three losses cost Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette his job.
In Ottawa, where winning three out of a possible four points on the road used to be cause for celebratory honking on the Queensway, there is panic in the air – not to mention in that largely anonymous Nervous Nellie creation called the Twitterverse: What’s wrong with Bobby Ryan?
The Senators won 1-0 in Buffalo and then lost 5-4 in a shootout the next night to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ryan’s crime, it seems, was that he picked up but a single assist in the two games, though team statistics say he had 15 chances to score. The puck just wouldn’t go in.
It did not pass notice that Jakob Silfverberg, one of the Ottawa prospects sent to the Anaheim Ducks in the summer trade for Ryan, did score in his first two games and is off to an impressive start.
Then there is the no small matter Ryan is in Ottawa only because beloved former captain Daniel Alfredsson elected to leave for the Detroit Red Wings. Only 26 – 15 years younger than Alfredsson – and drawing $5,562,500 (U.S.) a season, Ryan is expected not only to replace Alfredsson on the right wing of the top line but to produce immediately.
“He’s got a bigger microscope on him because of that situation,” Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean said.
The impatience could be heard on talk radio and easily found on social media. One heartless tweeter, for reasons unknown, even took a shot at Ryan as “a product of domestic violence” – a reference to a complicated and difficult past that includes his family fleeing New Jersey for the West Coast and taking on a new identity.
“So gutless,” the usually easygoing Ryan responded. “You’re the reason athletes should be able to hit people in person.”
On Monday morning, Ryan was met by a larger-than-usual media throng and, to his credit, brushed off the shots with a smile. “It’s pretty hard to jump on a guy after two games on the road,” he said.
Yet, some were. Some thought the much-ballyhooed “chemistry” that had been expected when Ryan – a 30-goal scorer four times with Anaheim – was placed on the top line with centre Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek had failed to ignite, whereas the team’s best line over the opening games had clearly been the one centred by Kyle Turris.
Spezza, however, missed almost all of last season due to back surgery and had groin troubles during training camp. That the team’s new captain did not skate Monday suggests he is not free of physical problems.
“The pace of his game was not what we would like it to be,” MacLean said of Spezza’s first two outings in the new season.
There is also the matter of Ryan, an uncomplicated finisher, adjusting to playing with the slick, unpredictable Spezza. There is, alas, no playbook available concerning the various options Spezza has to choose from as he crosses an opposition blueline. There is also the matter of the different styles of hockey in the Western and Eastern conferences, the East currently far more a quick transition game than the West was in Ryan’s time there.
“There are a little bit of kinks to work out,” Ryan conceded.
“Two games in, I don’t understand why it’s such a panic button. … It’s a long time before the playoffs. There’s plenty of hockey to play.”
A slow start, he suggested, is nothing unusual for him. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t think I’ve had many years where I’ve come out of the gate. If I could put a finger on it and tell you why, I would. But it’s always been that way.”
After two days at home, one for rest and one for practice, the Senators headed back out on the road, with three games in California and one in Arizona before finally playing their home opener on Oct. 17, against the New Jersey Devils.
That strange scheduling might annoy Ottawa fans, but it’s just fine with Ryan, who was drafted second overall (after Sidney Crosby) by the Ducks, who scored his first NHL goal against the Los Angeles Kings and who played his previous five years in California.
For him, more “home” games than “away” – and not a panic button to be found.
“I think there was one or two media guys there who could push it,” he said of his time on the West Coast.
But even if they did, who would notice?
“You really played under the radar there,” he said. “It was different from here.”
Welcome to Canada.