Haggerty: Spooner needs to hit gas pedal

Haggerty: Spooner needs to hit gas pedal
December 21, 2013, 1:30 am
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(USA Today Sports Images)

WILMINGTON – Ryan Spooner has waited the last two years for the chance he’s getting right now with the Boston Bruins. He’s continued to hone his craft at the AHL level, and tore up NHL training camp with the Bruins this fall in a strong push for a roster spot that came up just short.

But the 21-year-old knew he would eventually get his chance given where he was on the depth chart, and now Spooner finds himself with the best chance he’s ever had to establish himself at the NHL level. Spooner had picked up assists in each of his first two games played in Boston earlier this season, but he’s got just one assist and a minus-2 rating in the six games skating in place of the injured Chris Kelly this month. He’s also been a minus-2 in each of the last two Bruins losses, so it hasn’t gone exactly the way the 2010 second round pick would have liked it to go.

“I’ve kind of been waiting for the offense to come on. Since I got called up I’ve been trying to do all the little things right,” said Spooner, who has 23 points in 21 games for the P-Bruins this season. “The face-offs are getting better, and they told me if I want to be on the penalty kill then I’ll need to block some shots. So that’s something new.

“That stuff is good to see. I think I’ve been solid. But the offense is going to come as I get more comfortable. The biggest thing for me is going out there, not make mistakes and just trying to fit in while not hurting the team. When I’m down [in Providence] they rely on me to score, so I play a little bit more high risk. Maybe I have a little more leeway to make my plays.”

Spooner is dealing with a complicated formula of expectations, strengths and weaknesses as a player and the opportunity being given to him to center Boston’s third line. It’s not a perfect fit for the offensively gifted Spooner, who is all about top gear skating speed and creating offensive plays with his mind and his nimble hands.

Both of those have taken a back seat to playing good defense in all zones, and being a safe, reliable player for the Bruins with the watchful eye of B’s coach Claude Julien upon him.

Those kinds of real hockey concerns for Spooner have clearly slowed him down a bit, and removed some of the risk-taking from his game that’s necessary to create good scoring chances. It sounds as if Spooner is still trying to find that happy medium between holding his own defensively, and playing like the point-per-game center that he’s become at the American Hockey League level.

“The most important thing for me is trying to play the same game here [at the NHL level] as I did down there [in Providence],” said Spooner. “The first three games I was pretty nervous, but now I think I’m skating better and starting to make some better plays.

“The first thing is getting the coaching staff’s confidence in you. Once you get that things start to happen. Maybe instead of just chipping a puck in, you try to beat a guy. Or maybe you make a pass to a guy that’s not quite open, and get [the pass] over an [opponent’s] stick. Right now it’s about taking the plays I see, and then getting on the back-check if it’s not there.”

Clearly offense is the biggest measuring stick for Spooner’s effectiveness in this stint with Boston, and the Bruins desperately need players with his kind of elite skating speed. But he’s also making headway in other areas toward being a complete player. The Bruins want to see a little more willingness to mix it up physically from the 5-foot-11, 181-pound center, but more in the pesky Nazem Kadri kind of way given his size and strength level.

Spooner is winning 43.6 percent of his face-offs after getting off to a rough start in the face-off circle, but apparently that’s nothing new for the talented pivot. He’s struggled at the face-off dot at every level he’s played at until getting the hang of things, and it stands to reason it’s the same for other parts of his game as well.

“I think my first four games I won, like, two total face-offs, and then in the last four games I’ve been a lot better,” said Spooner. “I’m starting to pick up on what guys do, and then switch around what I do. I sit on the bench and just watch what [the other centers] do against certain guys, and after every pre-game skate I take 20 or 30 face-offs against guys that are extremely good. So you expect to improve.

“My first year of junior hockey I was by far the worst face-off guy on the team, and last year I was by far the worst guy on my team at face-offs at the AHL level. This year I’ve been better on the draw at the American League level, but obviously it’s going to take some time picking things up here.”

Spooner has taken the commitment to playing all zones to the point of blocking shots, as he did in the third period while killing a penalty against the Sabres on Thursday night. That’s admirable and Spooner joked that it felt almost like scoring a goal when guys were yelling, and patting him on the back when he got back to the Bruins bench.

But Spooner is expected to create offense for the Bruins, and bring a breakneck speed pace to the game with his skating ability. It feels more like he’s holding something back out of fear for making a mistake, and that kind of “playing it safe” mindset doesn’t really allow Spooner to shine the way that he can.

It’s a tough situation for a young player finding the balance between responsible play and unlocking the keys to an offensive game, but that’s Spooner will eventually have to do if he hopes to taste real success at the NHL level.

“Even at the American Hockey League level I don’t score all that much,” said Spooner. “I only had five goals in 21 games, so I’m obviously more of a passer. For me I just need to get to the front of the net and hope for a lucky bounce off a skate.”

It will be nice if Spooner ventures to the front of the net for a bit while looking for his first goal this season, but hopefully nothing gets lost in the translation about his marching orders. Spooner needs to show off the speed and the offensive skill that have made for such an exciting young player in the B’s organization, and have likewise made a long-lasting impression with the Bruins.