Senators’ Bobby Ryan wrestling with life as high-paid healthy scratch

Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith talks about holding Bobby Ryan and the other 22 guys on the roster accountable for their play.

Sunday’s spanking of the San Jose Sharks delivered pure joy to the house of the Ottawa Senators.

But there was little joy deep in the heart of Bobby Ryan. The 32-year-old winger, Ottawa’s highest-paid player at $7.25 million per season, was watching the Senators’ 5-2 win in his civvies, as a healthy scratch. Joining him on the sidelines was another well-heeled veteran, winger Mikkel Boedker, a $4-million player. Kids rock. Vets sit. For now.

Welcome to the brave new world of head coach D.J. Smith. The “hardest-working 20” will play is Smith’s mantra, regardless of their contract.

For Ryan, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, a man who survived a horrific childhood as the transient son of a fugitive from justice, being benched for the first time since 2017 meant dying just a little.

"I think I was sad for the day, for a few hours," Ryan said Tuesday with his typical honesty, after a hard practice at which he joined a makeshift line of Boedker and fourth-line regular Scott Sabourin.

"Then you realize you can’t just be glum. You got to get back to work, put a good face on for the guys that night, make sure you do the right things by them, because you want them to succeed.

"You can go home and be mad, and curse the coach, curse the GM, curse whoever you think you need to curse, but it’s not going to get you anywhere. So, I decided to be proactive and take it as a lesson to get better and that’s what I’m going to do."

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One of the brave faces Ryan put on was the costume of a bathroom attendant, handing towels and lotions to his teammates at the annual Halloween party, a subservient role he pulled off with aplomb.

"His was the best," centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau said of Ryan’s costume.

Sometimes art imitates life. Now, here is Ryan in a server’s role guiding the younger players in a rebuild, while at the same time trying to keep his own place on the ice.

"My job is to push them all the time but also to keep them out of the lineup," Ryan says. "It’s kind of a tough spot, but I’m obligated to do right by these guys."

Here’s the rub. Until the Senators find a way to move Ryan’s contract or buy him out, there is a place for him as a mentor and power-play specialist if he can grab onto it. Ottawa’s sputtering special team with the extra man is ranked 31st in the NHL (5.4%). Ryan has just one goal and three assists overall in 10 games despite getting regular duty on the first unit power play.

For all the youth in the organization, between Ottawa and Belleville, there isn’t a lot of high-end scoring talent. If Ryan could capture a bit of his former self, he could be useful, if not full value for that big contract.

"We need him," Smith said. "We need his skill. He has to help us offensively. In the O zone. And on the power play."

Ryan recognizes he has to, in a word, "produce."

"That’s ultimately what it comes down to," he says. "We’ve all got to be better on the power play, and that includes me as well in a big chunk of that."

Confidence is vital for productive players, and Ryan has wrestled with it for years. He can feel himself tighten up when things aren’t going well individually for him.

"I get away from going up in the zone, making plays and finding guys," he says. "Doing those things when you’re confident and feeling good about yourself you normally find ways to do."

Players who are confident feel it from head to toe. Yes, even in the toes.

"A lot of confidence for me comes from moving my feet," Ryan says. "And I saw the video, I can see myself not moving in certain situations where I need to be.

"That’s a mental thing and I’ve got to work on that by myself. You can’t help me with that. You can yell at me all you want, but that’s me. I’ve got to get better at that."

Trading for Ryan six years ago wasn’t the worst thing, but extending him in the fall of 2014 for seven years at $50.75 million was questionable, and deep down most observers realized that at the time. Ryan’s contract expires after the 2021-22 season. He has a modified no-move clause.

Ryan was asked if he would agree with Roberto Luongo, who once said his own contract sucked because it was too big to move.

"To a degree. I don’t know. I think my contract is OK. It works for me," Ryan said, laughing.

"Everybody’s got an agent and they did their job. You can laugh about it all you want. Everything gets magnified because of it and I understand that. Have I lived up to it? Portions of the contract, yes. Portions of the contract absolutely not, and I understand what comes with that.

I’m not going to say it sucks."

In the summer of 2013, franchise icon Daniel Alfredsson had just bolted for the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent. Then-Senators general manager Bryan Murray felt he had to do something big to make up for the loss of Alfredsson, so he swung a deal for Ryan, sending young winger Jacob Silfverberg to Anaheim along with prospect Stefan Noesen and a first-round pick, which was used to draft Nick Ritchie.

Playing alongside Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and other productive Ducks, Ryan had been a four-time 30-goal scorer after being drafted by Anaheim second overall to Sidney Crosby in 2005. There’s another life burden for Ryan, being the runner-up prize to Sid the Kid.

He hasn’t reached the 30-mark with Ottawa, scoring 23 in 2013-14, his highest output as a Senator. Ryan did develop into a play-maker, producing 36 assists and 54 points in 2014-15. Meanwhile, his goals output for the past three seasons have dwindled: 13, 11 and 15.

He wants to shoot more, but isn’t seeing the opportunities, he’s not getting to the open areas.

Over the years, Ryan has had moments of triumph, especially during Ottawa’s surprising playoff run of 2017. In that 19-game span, ending in double overtime of Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final, Ryan had six goals, nine assists for 15 points. His overtime winner in Game 1 of the conference final was a thing of breakaway beauty, a highlight reel for the ages, a classic Ryan roof job on the backhand.

Those were the days.

Tuesday, Smith praised Ryan for his hard work at practice, but offered no guarantee Ryan gets in the lineup for Saturday’s game in Boston.

That depends on how the week transpires. How does Ryan look? Will Artem Anisimov be ready to go? Who gets called up later in the week (J.C. Beaudin and Filip Chlapik were sent back to Belleville Monday)?

While Smith doesn’t view Ryan as a fourth-liner, he noted that anyone can start on line four and move up to the top line before a game is out.

The coach loved the way his lineup, sans Ryan and Boedker, played against San Jose.

"We were fast, physical, and we came to play," Smith said.

Ryan will have to "track" better 5-on-5 and help out on the power play if he wants to play regularly, Smith said.

Then he added: "Saying that, our 20 best will play every single night."

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