Why Bobby Ryan may be Steve Yzerman’s best signing yet for Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
| Detroit Free Press

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Steve Yzerman may have made his best addition yet since taking over as general manager of the Detroit Red Wings in signing forward Bobby Ryan.

Ryan, a former second-overall draft pick, was far from the most coveted player available on the free agent market, but even so, he was picky about where he wanted to try to reboot his career.

A 45-minute conversation with Yzerman was one determining factor, but so was hearing from Dylan Larkin that no one should accuse the Wings of tanking.

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In his first interview since agreeing to a one-year, $1 million deal, Ryan shared that his research revealed why Yzerman backed coach Jeff Blashill even as the Wings endured a season in which they only won 17 games. Ryan reached out to Larkin to make sure he was making the right decision.

“I said listen, are you guys bogged down by the losing?” Ryan said. “Like has it gotten to you in the sense that you’re just accepting it? Because that would have been a big red flag for me. One thing that was told me was, ‘Coach would have been fired if he thought that we all accepted that.’ So you understand this is not a group of guys that want to lose, that is OK with it. And they’re not going to lose for long. I hope I can help facilitate them into that next stage.”

In addition to signing Ryan, Yzerman used free agency to plug holes by signing goaltender Thomas Greiss for two years, $7.2 million, defenseman Jon Merrill for one year and defenseman Troy Stecher for two years, $3.4 million.

Ryan described the conversation with Larkin as “one of the biggest conversation I had, where he mentioned, listen, if you can come in and we can be a much more competitive team than we were last year. You’ll help. We’re a year older, we’ve dealt with a little more.’ They have a good feeling they’re going to be a much more competitive team. That’s all I needed to hear.”

Yzerman targeted Ryan, 33, as soon he was bought out by the Ottawa Senators in September, and spoke with him in the days leading up to free agency.

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“He’s looking for an opportunity to jumpstart his career,” Yzerman said. “For us, we’re looking for scoring help up front, looking for another right shot, looking for help on our power play.

“With Bobby playing in Ottawa, I was able to talk to a lot of people in the area that have worked with him and they spoke very highly of him. We had a chance to talk prior to the signing and I enjoyed our conversation. Bobby was genuinely excited about the role he would play within the team off the ice and on the ice.

“I think it’s a good fit for us. In relative terms it’s only one-year contract, in relatively conservative dollars. We’re really excited. He had options and he thought this was a good spot for him to come and play. We just think it’s a good fit for lot of reasons.”

The conversation with Yzerman left Ryan deeply impressed. He told his wife that it looked like they would be headed to Detroit. Their 4-year-old daughter was all in when she found out there’s free pepperoni pizza for players’ families at games.

“I knew he was thorough, I just didn’t know how much he was digging. To hear that more so that he was interested enough to call around and not just say hey, let’s take a flier on a veteran. He did his research and found out that all the things I would like to hear about myself are true. It means a ton, it really does, that through the ups and downs in my career in recent years that I’ve maintained being a good guy through it all.”

In addition to being a good fit as a mentor, Ryan has the skill set to help an offense that averaged a league-worst 2.00 goals per game last season. A former 30-goal scorer, he tallied 15 goals as recently as 2018-19. He comes in deeply motivated to prove to critics he still belongs in the NHL. 

“It’s the No. 1 factor for me this year,” Ryan said. “Ultimately I’d like to prove to myself that I have more in me and two, everybody else behind that. There’s going to be naysayers because of my age and my speed. I can’t address age but I’m trying to address speed and go from there and show the hockey world I have something left in me.”

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Ryan has lost about 10 pounds over the past year, noting that “I cut out about 750 calories a day in a bottle of wine, so that certainly helps.” He is working with a skating coach for the first time in his career. When the NHL shut down in mid-March because of COVID-19, Ryan went to his offseason home in Idaho, where he was able to increase his training. 

“I missed so much time last year from mid-November to mid-February,” Ryan said. “That time gave me a new work ethic. I embraced not drinking and turned to fitness. … I’m trying to get out of my element, my comfort zone, as much as I can to be a better player. 

“I’ve said this before and I hate saying it, but COVID, because of the way it happened, has been a blessing for me. It allowed my body to really heal, it allowed me to get set in my new lifestyle. It gave me a chance to really get into recovery and learn about myself. When the season does start up, whenever that may be, I think I’m way better equipped to handle things now.”

As much as Yzerman impressed Ryan, his decision to reach out to Larkin meant something to Yzerman. The GM had not talked to Larkin about Ryan.

“I was appreciative and impressed that Bobby on his own took the initiative,” Yzerman said. “He did his homework on us. It was brought to my attention that he had called Dylan. He wanted to find out what was going on. He wants to come and help be a part of the rebuild, he wants to be a mentor for our young players. But he wanted to make sure he was going into an environment where the young guys were motivated, that they cared and had pride and wanted to win. 

“These kids, I have to go down and talk to them every day after these losses, when you see the desperation and dejection, the frustration in their faces. We’ve got a good little nucleus there, we just need more players. We’ll just keep trying to get better. I think Bobby is going to be a good fit and I think he’s got a lot of wisdom to share with our guys and at the same time, he wants to get his career going and play a lot more hockey.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings will be published October 13 by Triumph Books. To order, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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