Senators coach D.J. Smith sees Bobby Ryan assisting Red Wings’ rebuild

Detroit News

Mark Falkner
| The Detroit News

It was nearly a year ago at Little Caesars Arena when Ottawa Senators coach D.J. Smith heard the news that forward Bobby Ryan had left the team indefinitely after the morning skate and wouldn’t be in that night’s lineup against the Detroit Red Wings.

Ryan checked himself right away into the National Hockey League/National Hockey League Players’ Association substance-abuse program on Nov. 20, 2019. Three months later, he returned and scored a hat trick in his first home game on Feb. 27, 2020.

Now, the 13-year veteran and the 2020 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy winner as the player who best exhibits perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication is continuing his comeback from alcohol addiction after signing a one-year, $1 million contract with the Red Wings on the first day of free agency on Oct. 9.

“I wish Bobby all the best,” said Smith, who guided the rebuilding Senators to a 25-34-12 record in his rookie season last year, 23 points ahead of the last-place Red Wings (17-49-5, third-worst record in the franchise’s 94-year history).

“He played really well for us and he was a good guy in the room. It’s a fresh start for him in Detroit and I think he’ll have some success. If he gets a chance in the slot, he can score as well as anyone in the National Hockey League.”

Since being selected second overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2005 NHL draft (Sidney Crosby was taken first by the Pittsburgh Penguins), the 6’2″, 210-pound winger has scored 254 career goals in 833 career games, including four straight 30-goal seasons playing alongside high-scoring linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

In the Western Conference semifinal against Detroit in 2009, Perry had 26 shots on goaltender Chris Osgood but scored only once, a tying goal in the third period of Game 7 before Dan Cleary delivered the game-winning goal. In the conference quarterfinal in 2013, Perry scored twice on 21 shots against goalie Jimmy Howard but lost in Game 7.

As recently as the Senators’ playoff run to the final four in 2017, Ryan had 15 points in 19 games before losing in double overtime of Game 7 against the Penguins but the native of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, scored just 31 goals in his last three years and was a healthy scratch for only the second time in his career this season.

“The unfortunate part of being an older player that’s been around and is part of a rebuild is sometimes you’re going with a younger guy even though he may not be as good as that player,” Smith said. “I think that’s kind of what happened with him. He wasn’t necessarily scratched for better players. We just wanted to give an opportunity to a younger player in a top-six role and that unfortunately for him was his spot.

“He didn’t complain. He didn’t like it and I wouldn’t expect anyone to like it but you know what, he never affected the dressing room. He was always professional.”

Smith says Ryan’s positive attitude when he wasn’t playing and his comeback from alcohol-related problems made his three-goal performance in a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks even more memorable this year.

“I’m not a very emotional guy when it comes to those things but it was hard not to feel it (the emotion) on the bench,” Smith said. “For three months, you’ve got guys coming up from the minors trying to score, hitting crossbars. That night, he gave us a little glimpse of what it’s like to have a real prolific scorer in the lineup. He can just flat out score.

“The most important part was he wanted to get healthy for himself and his family and everyone understood that. Putting hockey aside, there’s a lot of life after hockey and Bobby’s a young guy. In hockey, older is 28 or 29 these days but in life, that’s a really young guy. He had the guts to go away and be away from his family. I’m proud of him.”

The Senators are giving a similar second chance to Ann Arbor’s Austin Watson, who has acknowledged problems with anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse. He was acquired last week from the Nashville Predators for a fourth-round pick in 2021.

Smith, who coached Watson in the power forward’s first two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the Windsor Spitfires in 2009-2010, said the former Compuware U16 graduate can “be a really good fit for us” in Ottawa.

“He’s been sober for a couple of years,” Smith said. “It’s a disease and he’s gotten help. He’s got a lot of hockey left in him. He’s 28 years old, a former first-round pick, a little more offensive upside than he’s shown. He’ll get a little more opportunity here.”

Watson was among the former Spitfires who congratulated Smith on the birth of his third son, Mickey. Born on Aug. 24, Mickey Smith was named after team captain Mickey Renaud, a fifth-round draft choice of the Calgary Flames who died in 2008 from a rare heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

“When I was on the ice during morning skates in Windsor, Mickey used to look after my oldest son Colton (Belle Tire U14 and a second-round pick of the London Knights),” Smith said. “His dad (Mark Renaud played 152 games in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers and Buffalo Sabres) was well-known in town and we were friends with the family. Mark got to come over and hold the baby and he brought us over a Mickey Mouse lunchbox which Mickey actually had.

“I always wanted to name a child after him and whether it was a boy or a girl, it was going to be Mickey. Colton has also worn No. 18 wherever he’s gone if the number is available. We’re trying to keep his legacy alive. It’s so unfortunate what happened. He was one of those kids you cheered for. Mickey will live on.”

Twitter: @falkner

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