This past summer, with Brad Richards taking off for the bright lights of the Big Apple, the Dallas Stars and Joe Nieuwendyk were faced with the task of replacing top-line offense with a limited budget. The Stars used the salary freed up by Richards to add depth to the roster, signing six players on the first day of free agency and filling the voids that existed on the third and fourth lines and on defense.
For offense the Stars turned to Michael Ryder, the Stanley Cup winning forward who had just had a magical run in the postseason in the months leading up to free agency. Ryder, a previous 30-goal scorer in Montreal, had become frustrated with a limited role in Boston and it was hoped that with an increased role in Dallas he could provide the offensive spark the Stars desperately needed.
With 13 games remaining in the season it's easy to see that Ryder has certainly been that spark, with 30 goals and 53 points in 69 games and on pace for the best offensive season of his career at the age of 31. After averaging 14 minutes of ice time in Boston last season, Ryder has shined on the top line for the Stars and leads the team in goal-scoring.
"It's a lot different when you get to play in different situations and in a different role," said Ryder, when asked about what's been different about this season. "In Boston I was kind of a third line and wasn't getting a lot of minutes. Here I'm playing a lot more and in a lot more situations and I like that, that's what I want to be. I wanted to show Dallas that I can be that player."
The Dallas Stars are riding an incredible hot streak, going 9-0-1 in the past ten games to vault into the top spot in the Pacific Division and to revive a season that seemed to be on the brink of disaster just a month ago. In that time, the top line of Ryder, Mike Ribeiro and Loui Eriksson have been the most productive line hockey -- scoring 43 points over the past 30 days.
When Ryder was first signed, it was thought that he and Ribeiro could relive the offensive glory of their time together in Montreal. A slow start to the season for that trio, along with an increasing defensive liability, led to Ryder playing on a line with Jamie Benn for most of the first half of the season.
Injuries necessitated change, however, and that the new top line for the Stars hasn't looked back.
"Me, Ribs and Loui have a real good thing going right now," said Ryder about the recent successes of the top line. "We have a lot of chemistry and we work well together. The way we play, we create a lot of chances and we use each other well and it pays off. We're able to read off of each other really well. So, it's been going well and we just have to keep doing what we've been doing in order to keep winning."
Ryder, along with a mid-season renaissance by Mike Ribeiro, has fueled that offensive surge with 17 points in his past 17 games. Ryder has been the most aggressive offensive player on the team, freed up by a renewed strategy by Glen Gulutzan to not expose the top line defensively.
It hasn't just been Ryder's offensive approach that has been impressive, as Ryder has been aggressive at both ends of the ice and each game shows a willingness to effectively backcheck and create turnovers -- a key to the ten-game points streak.
"Every night that I go out if I'm not scoring I try to do other things on the ice and getting that opportunity here is great," said Ryder. "I gotta make sure I just take it all in and show them they made the right decision."
Ryder is riding the highest shooting percentage of his career to what should be the best offensive season of his career, while playing with a line that has suddenly become the best offensive line hockey. Gultuzan's ability to use the top line in purely offensive minutes has freed up the top line from defensive burdens and allowed Ryder and Ribeiro to do what they do best -- score goals, and to score goals at the biggest times in games.
Ryder was a big part of the Stanley Cup winning team in Boston, a team that was renowned not just for it's aggression on the ice but for its incredible team chemistry off the ice -- which helped to fuel them through a long postseason. Ryder was in Boston for the three year build to become contenders and is now being asked to be part of the same building process here in Dallas - and he's seeing similarities between Dallas and Boston and why the future for the Stars is certainly bright indeed.
"I'm kind of seeing the same thing from the dressing room in response [losing], a lot of good team chemistry," said Ryder. "That's what we had in Boston, a team that wants to stick up for each other and play for one another and when it goes bad that can go a long way. I know that we have that here and I can tell just by the way we play. It makes a big difference. As the season has gotten longer, the past couple of months things have really come together and we're on a roll right now and I think we're feeling really good and we're playing the way we should be playing."
Michael Ryder has become one of the most valuable free agent signings in the NHL this season, taking a bit of a discount from his time in Boston when he signed for $3.5 million a year for two years in Dallas. It could be argued that Ryder has instantly vaulted to become one of the best free agent signings for the Stars in years, especially considering how his offensive output has fueled the recent success of the Stars and put them into position to make the postseason for the first time in four years.
Ryder knows from experience, however, that it takes constant improvement to keep such a streak alive. The Stars are far from safe in the playoff race and must keep the pedal to the floor, fighting for the lives in a tight Western Conference race.
"The team is rolling," says Ryder. "You have to make sure you do the little things right and when you do that good things happen. We've been doing that, we've been sound defensively and we've been taking advantage of our chances."
Keep it simple, take advantage of their chances and play good defensive hockey. That's been the key for the Stars over the past month, along with the offensive juggernaut that has been the top line for the Dallas Stars -- fueled by the career resurgence of the most dangerous sniper on the Stars.