Let’s face it — the Red Wings are in a tough spot headed into another season of rebuilding. The organization and fanbase are just now getting a first look at top prospects like Lucas Raymond, Jonatan Berggren (yes, he’s been sidelined but you get my point), among others. Many of these young players are getting their first taste of professional hockey in North America, and while there’s no doubt these players are bursting at the seams with skill, they have a lot of maturing to do. That’s where the importance of veteran leadership comes into play.
It’s relatively easy to find cheap veteran players in free agency, but what’s not easy is to find those players who want to be here. The Red Wings seem to have gotten lucky with players like Sam Gagner, who has been a valuable building block to this younger locker room. Steve Yzerman has struck even more luck with Bobby Ryan, who has seen a meteoric rise in Detroit as a fan favorite. Not only that, Ryan and Gagner aren’t just locker room pieces, they’re legitimate pieces on the ice as well.
“We talk about the mentor role but I still think there’s a place in the game for a guy to kind of bridge that gap between coach and player,” Ryan said at a media scrum on day 5 of Red Wings Training Camp. At 34 years old, Ryan fits the mold for a mentor on this team. The guy got started in the league the same season that Detroit brought home its 11th Stanley Cup. Yep, you heard that right. We’re almost 15 years removed from our last championship! Regardless, Bobby Ryan has been has been in this league a long time, and he came in at the tender age of 20 years old, so he has an idea of what it’s like to be a young man with a big job in a big city. That’s the type of mentor you would hope to find for your blue-chip prospects like Lucas Raymond, Detroit’s highest draft pick (4th overall in 2020) in some 30 years.
That brings me to the next point. Bobby Ryan wants to be in Detroit. This isn’t just some veteran on his last leg who’s chasing his Stanley Cup dreams in the closing acts of his career. No, Bobby Ryan has been very candid with his choices at this point in his career. “I had a few places in mind... and that was it. Detroit was number one, and obviously it was tough not hearing from them and not having dialogue about it, but I continued to make decisions based on the fact that this was a possibility and I’m glad it came up,” Ryan said of his time leading up to a PTO contract from Detroit.
The Red Wings have already been bitten by the injury bug, and the season opener hasn’t even happened yet. Detroit will be without one of its top playmakers for at least four months, after news surfaced that Jakub Vrana would need surgery on his shoulder. It’s a troubling development for a player who was poised to lead the team in scoring this season, but it could open a big opportunity for a younger player(s) to get their feet wet in the NHL. If that’s the case, having Bobby Ryan and Sam Gagner around could have a resounding impact on their development. It’s not just about how they play, but how to live the life of a professional hockey player — the routines, the meetings, the grind. It’s important to have players who have been there before, players who can show younger players how it’s done; Bridging the gap between player and coach, as Bobby Ryan eloquently put it.
I think we can all agree that Bobby Ryan has played himself into a roster spot, even after just one preseason game where he scored the game-tying goal that propelled the Wings to a shootout win over Chicago. So, maybe the case has already been made. Regardless, I think Steve Yzerman should consider keeping players like Bobby Ryan around as long as they would like to stay here in Detroit.
It’s not about his ability to get on the score sheet, it’s more about his attitude and positive influence on a very young core of players.