WILMINGTON – It was early in the third period Thursday night when Ryan Spooner really learned what it takes to become a regular in the NHL.
The playmaking center was thrust onto the Bruins’ penalty-killing unit in a tie game, and Buffalo Sabres towering defenseman Tyler Myers wound up for a big slap shot from just inside the blue line. The puck, however, never got past a sliding Spooner.
For a player known more for his fancy passing and speed than his dirty work, the play was a rarity.
“I think maybe that’s the third time I dove to block a shot,” Spooner admitted after the Bruins practiced at Ristuccia Arena on Friday in preparation for their rematch with the Sabres on Saturday at TD Garden.
Everyone knows that making the jump from the American Hockey League requires an adjustment to the speed and willingness to battle against fully-developed men. For the 21-year-old Spooner, the latter is definitely more difficult than the former. Of course, even when he’s fully developed, Spooner probably won’t able to put anyone through the glass or even plant someone on his rear end. It’ll be up to Spooner to complement his offensive game – which he and the Bruins hope will come around now that he has just three assists in eight games this season – with little tricks of the trade that’ll make up for any deficiencies in his bulk.
That means the 5-foot-11, 181-pound Spooner might have to pick up some of the intricacies of shot blocking from veteran teammates like Gregory Campbell and Chris Kelly. This time around, Myers’ shot hit Spooner on the top of the foot. It hurt enough for everyone to notice, but didn’t force Spooner from the lineup. The next time, he might not get as lucky. So instead of just throwing himself in front of a puck, he’s going to have to learn to better position himself to avoid injury.
He’s also going to have to improve on faceoffs. He’s been hotter of late, with 12 wins in 22 tries over the past three games. When he started his current six-game stint with Boston, Spooner lost all but two of his 11 faceoff opportunities through his first three games. For the season he’s just a tad better than 43 percent in the NHL.
If recognizing he has a problem is the first step toward fixing it, Spooner’s on his way.
“My first year playing junior hockey, I was by far the worst faceoff guy on the team,” he said. “Last year in the American League I was by far the worst guy on my team, and then this year in the American League I’ve been really good on draws. Obviously I’ve had some bad games where I’ve been like 30 percent, but I’ve had games where I’ve been 75 percent, 80. … Obviously coming here it’s going to take some time to just pick up on what all the little things that some of the older guys do. Just the strength, too.”
There’s more positive news to go along with Spooner’s improved success rate. Coach Claude Julien says he’s going to keep giving Spooner his chance to win some draws.
“You’ve got to get adjusted. I mean there’s more experienced and stronger guys here and it takes a little while,” Julien said. “But he went from not winning any draws at first to at least being a little bit more decent lately. The only way to get better at it is to keep working at it and give him the opportunity to get in there. If I pull him out and don’t let him take draws, then he’ll never get better.”
The Bruins drafted Spooner in the second round in 2010 with hopes that he could match his point production, which was better than a point per game in juniors in 2010-11, in the pros. Last season with Providence of the AHL he totaled 57 points in 59 games.
So far in the NHL, he hasn’t come close to that. He has just one assist in his six-game stint and is still searching for his first NHL goal through 12 games. But with Chris Kelly, Daniel Paille and Loui Eriksson still out of the lineup, the Bruins have little choice but to turn to Spooner for several different things he can provide the team. As long as he’s doing some other things while he’s not scoring, the team can get by and wait for the points. And he should benefit by developing into a more complete player in the long run.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.