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Ryan hopes for breakout year -- and to stay a Duck

September 24, 2008|Helene Elliott

Bobby Ryan was angry.

After being held scoreless and getting little ice time in the Ducks' first two playoff losses to Dallas he was told he wouldn't be in the lineup for Game 3. He had been assigned to their American Hockey League farm team in Portland, Maine, a fine place but not where he wanted to be.

"I just felt I belonged here for the playoffs," said Ryan, who started the season with the Ducks but was sent down twice and recalled twice.

"I kind of wanted to stick it to them, is probably the best way to play it. I took it personal."

He also took General Manager Brian Burke's parting words to heart.

"He said, 'Go down there and carry the team and really make a name for yourself in that league so you don't have to go back to it,' " Ryan said.

With Portland he was everything the Ducks envisioned he might be when they drafted him second behind Sidney Crosby in 2005, a level he hadn't come near while scoring five goals and 10 points in 23 NHL games last season.

He was physical but skillful, forceful but not reckless, dominant in scoring eight goals and 20 points in 16 games.

"It was something I had to do to state my case," Ryan said, "and I think they were happy with it."

On the strength of that performance -- and a summer workout program that melted 19 pounds off his 6-foot-1 frame and cut his body fat percentage from 17% to 9% -- he's making a compelling case to become a top-six forward and end the scoring woes that contributed to the Ducks' early playoff exit last spring.

Coach Randy Carlyle, rarely inspired to compliments and critical of Ryan's poor fitness last season, almost smiled in noting that Ryan no longer struggles to keep up with teammates. That means he can maintain the fast-paced cycling and puck-control game Carlyle wants the Ducks to play.

"Instead of it coming naturally things were happening and then he was reacting," Carlyle said. "He wasn't involved. The puck was over here you'd see him like, 'I've got to go over there and get it.' "

Now, Ryan is pursuing his big chance.

"It's not a make-or-break year but it's time for Bobby Ryan to step onto the big stage," Burke said.

Ryan, a right-handed shooter, has helped his cause during training camp by learning to play the left side and becoming comfortable on his backhand. A good effort in the Ducks' exhibition opener against the San Jose Sharks tonight at the Honda Center would make it clear that the New Jersey native doesn't want to go back to the AHL this season -- or ever.

"The pressure's there," Ryan said of his fourth training camp, "but at the same time I can breathe a little easier than last year, I feel."

Just a little, though.

His future with the Ducks may hinge on how they resolve their salary-cap squeeze, which intensifies each day that Burke can't trade Mathieu Schneider's $5.625-million cap hit.

It doesn't help the Ducks that bonuses normally carried over to the subsequent season's cap figure must be included in this season's numbers because there's no guarantee of a 2009-10 season while the NHL Players' Assn. retains an option to reopen the collective bargaining agreement.

Ryan's salary is $821,700 but bonuses make his cap hit $1,746,700. With Ryan on the team the Ducks are $3.05 million above the limit -- but that's without re-signing dynamic right wing Teemu Selanne, who's in camp on a tryout agreement that will expire when the season starts.

Burke likely will have to package Schneider with at least one other player and take a player back to create enough cap space for Selanne. Many teams were willing to take Ryan off his hands at this year's draft and many are interested now but Burke is reluctant to let him go at what could be a career-defining moment.

Burke might not have a choice, and that would be a shame.

"I'm expecting this is going to be his breakout year," Selanne said of Ryan. "You can see from his face that he's ready now. . . . He has unbelievable tools. It will be awesome."

But will he display them as a Duck?

Ryan hopes so. Called up last season after Andy McDonald was traded and again after Corey Perry was injured, he wants to be here on merit, not as an understudy.

"This year after building a relationship with the guys in the room I really feel like I'm part of something special here and it's nice to be thrown into the mix," he said. "And to start in this room, to be around the guys right from the get-go, is an added benefit."

Finishing with them would be even better.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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