VANCOUVER – Whatever player Ryan Spooner might still be in the National Hockey League, for which he may or may not be worthy, there was almost no chance for him to be that player with the Edmonton Oilers.
He went there in November from the New York Rangers as the Great Oiler Dumpster Fire was about to become fully engaged. Spooner was the consolation prize that was consolation to nobody after former general manager Peter Chiarelli, soon to be fired, inconceivably downgraded Jordan Eberle to Ryan Strome to Spooner in trades that will be infamous in Edmonton for many years.
Spooner was the “after” picture, the unappealing remains of the Eberle trade as Chiarelli swapped filet mignon for sirloin, then downgraded again to a tin of Spam.
The NHL has 700 players. There is a lot of Spam playing. But it’s hard to digest when you are expecting steak.
After 25 games in Edmonton and a bunch of healthy scratches, Spooner was demoted by the Oilers to the American Hockey League on Jan. 23, the same day Chiarelli was finally jettisoned. And it was there with the Bakersfield Condors that Spooner might have stayed had the Vancouver Canucks, with nothing to lose, acquired him Saturday in exchange for their own mistake, Sam Gagner.
On Monday, in his first practice with his fourth team this season, Spooner skated on left wing with Canucks super rookie Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. He also practised on the second-unit power play.
The Canucks are going to give Spooner the chance to save his NHL career. It’s up to him whether he seizes it.
“A lot of things kind of run through the back of your mind,” Spooner said of his tumultuous season. “One of the things is, like: ‘Can I still play in the league?’ I’ve always been the kind of guy who could put up points. For some reason, this year it just hasn’t been there. Back in my mind, I’m thinking: ‘Is it because I’m not good enough to play here anymore?’
“At the same time, too, I know that I can play here. I know I have the speed and skill. I think for me it’s more of a mental thing; I just have to go out there and believe in myself. The mistakes, I guess they’re going to happen in the game. But for me, I’ve just got to work hard and the rest of the stuff will kind of take care of itself.”
What makes Spooner’s fall in the NHL exceptional is that it was only last spring when he put up 16 points in 20 games with the Rangers after the Boston Bruins, who drafted and developed the speedy Ottawa native, traded him to New York as part of the Rick Nash deal.
For the season, Spooner finished with 13 goals and 41 points in 59 games for the Rangers and Bruins, enough to earn him a two-year, $8-million-US contract in New York. He was 26-years-old, in his prime.
But after Spooner started this season with just one goal and one assist in 16 games, the Rangers happily took Strome from the Oilers in exchange. Spooner then produced just two goals and one assist in 25 games in Edmonton as his ice time plummeted to an average of 9:40. In one season, Spooner’s points-per-60 minutes have collapsed to 0.70 from 2.70.
“I could have showed up (in Edmonton) and made an impact at the start and that didn’t happen,” Spooner said. “That kind of falls on me. But at the same time, too, with the player I’ve been in the past, I think I deserved a little more of a look there. But it’s in the past now.
“It doesn’t really bug me, the fan stuff. I’m trying my best out there. It’s my career, right? I’m not trying to not play well. But at the end of the day, it’s a fresh start here. I was there for 25 games, and it didn’t go well and they wanted to move on. Hopefully, it works out for both sides.”
Spooner’s salary turbo-charged him through waivers and into the AHL. The Rangers are paying $900,000 of it, leaving the Canucks’ share of $3.1 million about the same as what Vancouver was paying Gagner to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ farm team.
“It was actually a breath of fresh air to go down there and join a team that was on a winning streak,” Spooner said after scoring six points in seven games with Bakersfield – all of them wins. “It was nice to be part of that winning atmosphere and just play. I had fun while I was there and got some of the confidence back that I was lacking. I know I can be an effective player in this league.”
Anything he can offer the Canucks will be a bonus. There were six players practising Monday at Rogers Arena who weren’t on the team a week ago, indicative of the injury crisis that is undermining the Canucks’ unexpected playoff drive.
Coach Travis Green confirmed that winger Jake Virtanen will be out a month after suffering a fractured rib when blindsided away from the puck by Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf last Wednesday. Spooner has a chance to earn an offensive role and if he doesn’t, it won’t be the Oilers’ fault.
“He’s going to have urgency in his game,” Green said. “I think he understands once you’re down in the AHL, and you go through waivers, it is an eye-opener for players. We’re probably going to get his best right away and he’s got to capitalize on that. And hopefully we can take advantage of that as well. Play your best and good things will happen.”