Following Boston's 1-0 shutout loss to the Panthers on Thursday, head coach Claude Julien — a long-time advocate of winger Michael Ryder — mentioned him as part of a group of Bruins who are not regular passengers on the Black and Gold train that is just barely staying on its tracks down the stretch run.
"There’s no doubt we have some players who could've been much better for us," Julien said on Thursday evening. "And a lot of those players are the players we need to help us get through this. You can't stand here and say, 'We were outstanding.' We just lost [to Florida]. If everyone were as good as they could be, we would have won [that] game.
"Ryder is probably our best shooter and ends up with zero shots. Those are the things we needed from those players. I thought Ryder played a much better game in New Jersey and we needed more out of him [Thursday] as well. He's one of a few more that we needed more out of."
On Friday, Julien went a step further and juggled his forward lines at practice. The most notable change was breaking up the Blake Wheeler–David Krejci–Michael Ryder line that found so much success last season but has shown little cohesiveness in 2009-10. Despite the fact that Krejci has caught fire with 15 points in his last 17 games, his linemates have stayed ice cold. Wheeler hasn't scored in nine games and Ryder has just one goal in his last 18.
Friday's practice lineup had Wheeler on the third line as a right wing, with Vladimir Sobotka centering and Brad Marchand on the left. Ryder, however, found himself part of the jumbled up fourth line that consisted of Daniel Paille on the left, Steve Begin and Trent Whitfield at center and Shawn Thornton (healthy after missing Thursday's game with an upper body injury) and Ryder on the right.
Any two of those five could be scratches.
"Definitely, it could happen," Ryder said when asked if he could be the odd man out. "When you are looked at to score goals and you’re not scoring, it is definitely in mind, but I just have to keep working hard right now and step it up even another notch."
Julien has always been a huge supporter of Ryder and was one a major influence in encouraging GM Peter Chiarelli to sign the streaky sniper prior to last season. Julien coached Ryder in the AHL in Hamilton and with the Canadiens in the NHL before both found homes in Boston.
Despite Ryder's struggles in 2007-08, when he had just 14 goals, Julien believed Ryder could rebound and thrive again under his watch. Ryder had two 30-goal seasons under his belt already, and Julien had a hunch that he could find his scoring touch with Boston. He was right, as the New Foundland native lit the lamp 27 times in the 2008-09 regular season and five times in 11 playoff games.
"Michael just had one bad year," Julien said after Ryder helped the Bruins sweep the Canadiens with four goals in last year's first-round playoff series. "For whatever reason that may be, Michael only scored 14 goals [in 2007-08] but, as I've often mentioned, we forget all the great years he had and focus on that one bad year. He came to our team with everyone in our organization thinking he could help us and he did that."
Those 30-goal seasons now seem like very distant memories. Ryder has just 17 goals in 77 games this year, and he just doesn't seem to be doing the little things he needs to do to break out of this season-long funk.
"I'm trying to get there and do what I need to do, but it's hard right now," Ryder said when asked if he was playing hard along the boards, something he has credited for his success in the past. "It's frustrating, but you just keep going."
Ryder was asked if this year's dry spell brings him back to that forgettable time when he was a regular in former Habs head coach Guy Carbonneau's doghouse in 2007-08.
"That was a different situation," Ryder said.
That may be true, and it’s no secret Julien has been an ally for Ryder — but the frustrated coach may be left with no choice. He may have to put Ryder up top in the press box for the first time this season. Julien has refrained from singling out Ryder, as he did with embattled defenseman Dennis Wideman earlier this season, but he did tell the media there have been closed-doors meetings with players in an effort to get them going.
"Don't get me wrong, we have meetings with those players — and just because you guys don't hear or see, doesn't mean it doesn’t happen," Julien said. "We just don't change lines and say, 'OK, they'll get the message that way.' There's a lot of stuff that’s being done to get those guys going."
There is no doubt Julien is sincere when he says "players," because Ryder is by no means the only invisible man out there. But sources told NESN.com on Friday that the coach is at his wit’s end with all of them, and his loyalty for Ryder will not stand in the way of what’s best for the team.
If Ryder doesn’t find his game very soon, he is going to be wearing the fourth-line red jersey in practice regularly, and he could be one of the unlucky healthy scratches like he was during his final days in Montreal.