Ryan fighting for spot with Canes

Staff writerSeptember 22, 2009 

At 29, Michael Ryan can't be considered an up-and-coming "prospect" or one of the Carolina Hurricanes' "kids" in training camp.

Then again, with 83 games of NHL experience, the forward isn't really a "veteran" NHL player, either.

In some ways, Ryan is a 'tweener, caught in limbo between the American Hockey League and the National Hockey League. The Boston native is like a .300 hitter for the Pawtucket Red Sox, a good Triple-A player but not quite good enough to beat out someone on the parent Boston club.

In hockey parlance, Ryan is a "depth player." Every organization has them in the minor leagues, and their ages and experience vary. It's also a tough position to be in -- so close to the NHL but not in it.

"I basically have to bump somebody out of their position," Ryan said. "It's hard to do, especially with a team that was so successful last year and also added a couple of new guys as well.

"I'm on the outside looking in. All I can do is see what I can do to force their hands and see if they'll make a change."

Odds are it will not happen. Ryan played in the Canes' preseason opener against Nashville on Friday and again Monday night against the Atlanta Thrashers, but another roster cut looms.

Monday night Ryan did not score. He suffered an upper-body injury in the first period and did not return.

Ryan, signed as a free agent last October, played 18 games for the Canes last season as a call-up from the Albany River Rats, Carolina's AHL affiliate. He had two assists, averaged eight minutes of ice time and was used on the fourth line and penalty kill.

But check out his numbers with the River Rats: 40 games, 25 goals, 17 assists, 42 points.

"I don't want to be in the American League, and I'm trying to make that evident by doing everything I can there," Ryan said. "But it's not that easy. You're not playing for a team that's 25th in the league. You're not going to come from the American League and hop on a line with Eric Staal for too many games and find your way onto a team like that."

Or a team as well-stocked with forwards, and one that added free agents Stephane Yelle and Tom Kostopoulos in the offseason.

"Stephane Yelle has won a Stanley Cup and done a lot in this league," Ryan said. "I can't knock them for wanting to have some veteran leadership. But that's also one of the guys you're fighting to take their spot."

And not just Yelle and Kostopoulos. Some of the Canes' top draft picks from recent years -- forwards Brandon Sutter, Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman -- also have been in there fighting.

"He's right on the bubble," general manager Jim Rutherford said of Ryan. "He's a good player, and if he doesn't play here to start off, he'll just keep going to put himself in position to play here as the year goes along or get in the mix for 'Is he one of the guys for next year?'

"He can really skate. I think because he scored so much in the American League that's what people want to see him do here, but he doesn't have to score here based on the team we have. He can kill penalties and he can play at any time because of the way he skates."

Ryan, drafted by the Dallas Star in 1999, was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in 2003. After a couple of AHL seasons, he played 19 games for the Sabres in the 2006-2007 season -- scoring in his NHL debut -- and 46 games the next season.

He has had a taste of the big time, but a taste is not what he wants. Or the perpetual tag "depth player."

"I've been trying to get rid of that for a couple of years now," Ryan said, smiling. "I'm not 22, 23 years old. I don't know what more I can do down in the American League.

"I can see if I was 22 years old and they say go down a play a little bit. I've already done that and gotten better every year and put up numbers. I'd like to stay in the NHL for a while."

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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