The Calgary Flames have paid Derek Ryan a $3.125 million annual salary for the last two years. It’s been money well spent: Ryan has fit into the Flames’ lineup seamlessly as a secondary scoring weapon and as a defensive rock. He’s also a right-handed shot, rare on recent editions of the team.
Ryan will turn 34 on December 29 and has one year left on his deal at that same $3.125 million figure. What can the Flames expect Ryan to provide this season? Does he have a future with the team beyond the expiry of his current deal? Let’s take a look.
How he got here
Ryan’s career story has been told many times. Undrafted after a good junior career with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League, Ryan moved on to play four years with the University of Alberta Golden Bears men’s hockey team between 2007-08 and 2010-11.
He moved overseas beginning in 2011-12, embarking on a three-year stint in Austria before spending a year with Orebro HK of the Swedish Hockey League. Ryan scored 60 points in 55 games to lead Orebro and garnered NHL interest after being named SHL MVP for 2014-15. On Jun. 15, 2015, Ryan signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Ryan spent most of 2015-16 in the American Hockey League before emerging as an NHL regular in 2016-17, scoring 29 goals in 67 games and earning a one-year, $1.425 million deal with the Hurricanes for 2017-18. That contract turned out to be excellent value for Carolina as Ryan scored 15 goals and 38 points in 80 games while providing terrific defensive contributions.
Along with Bill Peters, Ryan moved to Calgary in the summer of 2018 after signing a three-year, $9.375 million deal with the Flames on the opening day of unrestricted free agency. Ryan started slow to begin 2018-19, scoring just one goal and three points in his first 18 games, but finished out the year with another 38-point showing in 81 games.
Ryan continued to excel in 2019-20. He posted improved defensive results, particularly on the penalty kill where his expected goals-for percentage of 16.8% ranked first among Flames PK regulars. He continued to score at a solid rate, posting 10 goals and 29 points in 68 games, although he dried up a bit down the stretch with just one goal in his final 19 regular season games. He scored two assists (and no goals) in the playoff bubble. Still, he managed to contribute with team-leading penalty-killing results.
A $3.125 million annual salary usually comes with the expectation that the forward being paid that amount will contribute secondary scoring to some degree. Even factoring in his season-ending cold spell in 2019-20, Ryan has met offensive expectations to this point in his tenure with the Flames while also meeting or even surpassing his defensive forecasts.
Is Ryan overpaid at this point? Maybe. That said, with just one year remaining on his contract, he’s not an anchor, and he’s provided good value thus far in his tenure. Very few UFA contracts ever come close to being perfect. With Ryan, the Flames have gotten a player who can play in any position and reliably contribute in any situation. Those players are often underappreciated until they’re gone.
Who will play centre for the Flames this season? If head coach Geoff Ward sees fit to move Sam Bennett and Elias Lindholm to the middle on a full-time basis, the Flames will have to make a corresponding move to free up a centre spot. That probably means Ryan shifts to the wing, although he’d probably still be counted on to take face-offs.
Ryan is a “low-mileage” player. Sure, he’s about to turn 34, but he hasn’t logged a ton of tough miles in his career and he doesn’t play like a guy nearing the end of his career. He has 317 total NHL games under his belt and probably still has a few years left in him if he continues being a reliable, versatile middle-six option.
The Flames are in a position right now where they have enviable forward depth. Players like Ryan and Josh Leivo probably don’t belong on a fourth line but the Flames may be forced to deploy them in that type of a role. Ryan will likely continue being a fixture on the penalty kill and he could return to the second power play unit if a right-handed shot is needed, although Leivo might help satisfy that requirement.
In the upcoming 56-game season, Ryan will probably score anywhere between 15 to 25 points. A lot depends on where he ends up in the lineup and how heavily he’s deployed in his own zone. Last week, we pencilled Ryan in for 20 points in 56 games — barring a major deterioration in play, his roster spot is locked down.
If Ryan continues to contribute at his current offensive level while maintaining his strong defensive play, the Flames would be smart to look at giving him a short-term extension at a cheaper salary. It would be a low-risk move that would help keep the Flames a competitive and deep team.