78Derek Ryan
Photo Credit: James Guillory/USA Today Sports

Where does Derek Ryan fit in the Flames’ new-look bottom-six?

Since taking over from the now-departed Brian Burke as the Calgary Flames’ general manager in 2014, Brad Treliving has been the target of criticism from fans for his frequent and often disastrous mishaps in the NHL’s unrestricted free agency period.

The Flames’ track record in trades, at the NHL Entry Draft, and in making the postseason has improved under Treliving’s watch in comparison to the tenures of his predecessors. But Treliving’s multi-year UFA signings of Mason Raymond, Troy Brouwer, and Michael Stone all ultimately resulted in buyouts, while his largest-ever open market signing, James Neal, skipped town as part of an anchor-for-anchor trade with the Oilers after a horrendous single season with the Flames.

But every GM has his day, and, to his credit, Treliving has made more than a few solid UFA signings in his six years on the job. The five-year, $21.5 million deal he gave Czech winger Michael Frolik in the summer of 2015 turned out to be more than fair value for its first four years. 

Stealing Kris Versteeg from his professional tryout agreement with the Edmonton Oilers proved to be another shrewd move. Speaking of ex-Oilers, Cam Talbot is demonstrating in this post-season that his one-year, $2.75 million show-me contract should be a pittance compared to the new deal he’s due to receive as a UFA this, er, autumn. 

That said, Treliving’s best UFA contract of all might be the three-year, $9.3 million deal he handed then-31-year-old pivot Derek Ryan on July 1, 2018. 

Ryan’s unique career story has been told ad nauseum, but to recap: he started with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs before going to school to play hockey—but not, like most future NHLers, in the NCAA. Instead, Ryan played four years of Canadian university hockey with the University of Alberta Golden Bears, mixing in subsequent stops in Austria and Sweden before finally landing in North America at the age of 29. 

He arrived in Calgary after spending three seasons splitting time with Bill Peters’ Carolina Hurricanes and their AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, scoring 15 goals and 38 points in 2017–18 while killing penalties and spending time as Jeff Skinner’s centreman. 

Now, Ryan is finishing up year two of his big UFA contract with the Flames, and all parties involved seem more than satisfied with how the deal has unfolded. 

“My family and I have really enjoyed Calgary so far,” said Ryan via text, prior to the NHL’s resumption. “We feel that it’s a great place for our kids, and I have really enjoyed playing for the Flames. I would definitely enjoy re-signing with the Flames as a great option.”

“[Ryan’s] a guy that’s extremely prepared, he’s a pro, he’s a team guy first,” Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward told Postmedia’s Kristen Anderson shortly after Ryan’s 300th NHL game in March. “He knows where he fits in on our team and he’ll do whatever he has to to help the team win. You win with guys like him.”

Indeed, Ryan was instrumental in helping the Flames win their play-in series over the Winnipeg Jets, albeit in a different way than many onlookers might have expected after he spent much of the regular season on the third line with Dillon Dube and Milan Lucic on his flanks. 

A minor injury to Ryan during Phase 3 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan opened up an opportunity for perennial playoff performer Sam Bennett to slide up into the third-line centre spot. But what might have seemed like a demotion on paper turned into an unexpected boon for the Flames, as both Bennett and Ryan thrived in their reworked roles during the Jets series.

Everybody knows how well Bennett played against Winnipeg. The Flames controlled 53.57% of the shot attempts during his shifts at 5-on-5, with only Noah Hanifin and Dillon Dube driving play more effectively. The Flames’ expected-goal percentage hit a dominant 67.96% with Bennett on the ice at even-strength. 

In terms of counting statistics, Bennett came through with two huge goals for the Flames in the four-game series and added an assist. His 2015 Micheal Ferland-esque total of 22 hits in the four-game series easily paced the team. He played 12-and-a-half minutes a night at even-strength compared to just over seven for Ryan. 

Ryan contributed only one point during the series: a secondary assist on Rasmus Andersson’s empty-netter in Game 4 that made it a 4-0 Flames lead with just minutes to play in the third period. After a solid 10-goal, 29-point regular season, his postseason totals thus far could be looked at as a disappointment for a Flames team that’s always itching for more secondary scoring. But despite his vastly reduced 5-on-5 ice time and offensive output, Ryan proved incredibly valuable in other ways during the play-ins.

No forward was as positively impactful as Ryan on the Flames’ penalty kill in the play-ins. Ryan played 11:45 against the Jets while the Flames were shorthanded and, in that time, the Flames only allowed nine shot attempts. For comparison’s sake, in Elias Lindholm’s 13:16 of shorthanded play during the series, the Flames surrendered 28 attempts. With Mark Jankowski on the ice, the Flames allowed five attempts … in just over two minutes. With Ryan on the ice, the Flames allowed fewer than twice that many shot attempts in over five times as much ice-time. Even Mikael Backlund and Tobias Rieder, the latter of whom former coach Peters referred to as an “elite penalty-killer” back in September, allowed more attempts-per-minute.

Of course, the analytical weight of shot quantity pales in comparison to shot quality but, luckily, the readily-available expected-goals against (xGA) statistic takes both into account. Like goals and points, xGA is a cumulative statistic, so looking at it on a per-minute basis paints the clearest picture in terms of value.

Player Total play-in PK TOI Shot attempts against Shot attempts against/min. Total expected goals against xGA/min.
77 MARK JANKOWSKI 2:13 5 2.26 0.28 0.126
16 TOBIAS RIEDER 11:57 13 1.09 0.79 0.066
28 ELIAS LINDHOLM 13:16 28 2.11 1.93 0.145
11 MIKAEL BACKLUND 12:40 12 0.95 0.97 0.077
10 DEREK RYAN 11:45 9 0.77 0.37 0.031

(All statistics from Natural Stat Trick.)

In the fourth and sixth columns—which are the most important—the lower the numbers, the better. Ryan obliterated his competition on the Flames, totally stifling opposing power play units in terms of both shot quantity and shot quality. Of course, looking at any four-game sample is going to be a little bit shaky in terms of reliability: guys can have good and bad stretches that don’t perfectly reflect who they typically are on a nightly basis. 

That said, Ryan’s effectiveness on the PK is hardly a new revelation.

Player Total 2019-20 regular season PK TOI Total on-ice shot attempts against On-ice hot attempts against/min. Total on-ice expected goals against On-ice xGA/min.
77 MARK JANKOWSKI 115:10 213 1.85 14.13 0.123
16 TOBIAS RIEDER 88:25 160 1.81 10.41 0.118
28 ELIAS LINDHOLM 148:52 282 1.89 19.48 0.131
11 MIKAEL BACKLUND 111:37 181 1.62 11.90 0.107
10 DEREK RYAN 114:31 184 1.61 11.72 0.102

Obviously, Ryan’s gaudy playoff numbers are unsustainable compared to his still-team-leading numbers during the regular season on the Flames’ eighth-ranked penalty-killing unit. Even still, more than ever, the playoffs are a breeding ground for “what have you done for me lately?” thinking and, lately, Ryan has been deployed almost exclusively as a vacuum cleaner for scoring chances in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill. That type of player has value for any winning team, especially given that this is Ryan showing his versatility by excelling at a different role than he’s been praised for during his two regular seasons with Calgary. 

In his 149 regular-season games with the team, Ryan has seen plenty of power play time and offensive zone deployment and he’s scored at a solid 0.45 points-per-game rate (23 goals, 44 assists, 67 points). He’s been able to balance quality work on both special teams units with more-than-satisfactory play at even strength. And now, he’s adapting, not just in adequate fashion but in outstanding fashion, to his altered role. 

Every 33-year-old NHL player is going to face questions about his future. Some may look at the Flames’ performance against the Jets and argue that Sam Bennett has passed Derek Ryan by. Both players are up for contract renewals at the end of the 2020–21 season, and the 1996-born Bennett looks to have a slightly longer career trajectory from this point forward than Ryan, who turns 34 in December. 

But despite his not-insignificant $3.1 million salary through 2021 and his relatively advanced age, the Flames would do well to keep Derek Ryan in the fold, even past his current contract’s expiry date. He has produced and defended well in every situation with a variety of linemates, from Garnet Hathaway and Andrew Mangiapane to Milan Lucic and Dillon Dube. 

And much like teammate Mark Giordano, whose Norris Trophy at 35 came at the peak of an unusual career path of his own, Ryan’s advanced age comes with a relatively light body of work at the NHL level.

“I know my age seems like I’m old, but I feel like I’m a ‘low mileage’ player at this point,” said Ryan. “I didn’t start playing in the NHL until I was 29, so my body hasn’t gone through the grind for as long as most guys who are my age. I played four years in Canadian university playing 28 games a year. I played four years [of] pro in Europe playing 50 games a year.

“All of these games were far less physical and the travel was much less demanding, so I feel like I haven’t been worn down as much as others my age have,” he added. “I feel like I have many years ahead of me still!”