Watching Derek Ryan lead the Checkers this season, it was easy to forget that he was playing his first professional season on this continent.
On paper, making the jump from playing four seasons overseas to the American Hockey League seems like it could be tough. But for Ryan, it wasn’t quite as drastic.
“I honestly didn’t feel in my head or in my game that I had to adjust or change a whole lot,” said Ryan. “It was just a bit of a learning curve to learn how to play in North America compared to Europe. I think I did that pretty seamlessly. I think I was pretty successful at adjusting.”
His numbers back that assessment up, as Ryan led the Checkers with 55 points and 23 goals on the year.
Offensive flair isn’t something new for Ryan, as he established himself as an elite scorer during his time in Europe, including leading the top Swedish league in scoring in 2014-15. That proved to not be just a flash in the pan, as he carried that scoring touch with him to a new style of hockey.
“Speed, skill and playmaking, those are the big parts of my game,” said Ryan. “I’m just able to change my game to best serve myself in those situations. I’m a good skater and I think that translates itself to both the small ice and the big ice. My playmaking ability allows me to make plays in small spaces anyway, so if I can do that on the smaller ice here in North America, which I think I’ve proven that I can, then my game translates pretty well.”
Ryan was a picture of consistency for much of the season, tearing out of the gates and not recording back-to-back scoreless games until the end of December. The forward was the driving force behind the team all year.
“He was very good for us,” said head coach Mark Morris of Ryan. “He had a number of different linemates this year and he was still able to be highly productive for us. Without him, we wouldn’t have even come close to putting ourselves in the playoff race.”
Ryan’s impact on the team went beyond his play on the ice, as he was named team captain by Morris at the beginning of the season, despite being a brand new player to not only the organization but to North America as a whole.
“I’m not going to be yelling at guys or trying to motivate guys that way,” said Ryan. “I’m more like ‘this is how we should do it, follow me and look at how I’m doing it.’ I lead by example. I think that my game lends itself to be good for that role as well because I’m not only a skilled player but I’m a hard worker, I’m consistent, I pride myself on being a consistently good hockey player every day whether it’s practice or an off day or a game day, it’s always the same.”
Though it maybe wasn’t the prototypical approach to the captaincy, Ryan was successful as a leader on a young Checkers squad.
“He led by example,” said Morris. “Very seldom did he have an off night. He’s not a vocal guy, but his actions spoke volumes.”
While he was able to navigate most of the transition to North America seamlessly, there was one aspect of his new home that was a big shakeup for Ryan.
“The travel, that’s probably the biggest adjustment to be honest,” said Ryan. “Especially in Charlotte, I don’t know if it’s the worst travel in the league but it’s definitely the longest because you’re always flying places and you’re going on the road for weeks at a time.”
Coming from the Swedish Hockey League, the travel part of AHL life was something that Ryan had not experienced before.
“I didn’t spend a night in a hotel room last year in Sweden until the playoffs, so that’s a huge change and adjustment for not only me but for my family as well,” said Ryan. “That’s one of the biggest differences between Europe and North America, the time away from home. It’s just one of those things where when you get on the road you’re with your teammates and you can grow together, but at the same time it’s tough to be away from your family.”
While it became clear pretty early on that Ryan could be a dominant threat at the AHL level, he took an even bigger step this season, making his NHL debut on March 1 and lighting the lamp. He would appear in six total games for the Hurricanes, tallying two goals and showing that he could play at the next level.
“It’s a big confidence boost for me going forward in my career,” said Ryan of his NHL stint. “I know that I can perform and contribute in any league that I play in, whether it’s the NHL or Europe or the AHL, it doesn’t matter. The NHL is obviously the best league in the world, but at the end of the day it’s still just hockey. I know that my game translates well to have success at those levels.”
“I was so proud of him to get the opportunity to be rewarded for all the work that he did by playing in the NHL and scoring,” said Morris. “It makes you feel really good as a staff to see a guy realize him dreams. You know all the hard work that he’s put in to get to that point in his career.”
After a largely successful season for Ryan personally (“Obviously it’s not the end we wanted as a team, but I’m pretty happy with how I did”), the next step is to decide what his future holds, as the 29-year-old is now an unrestricted free agent.
“We’re going to wait and discuss that with my agent and see what my options are,” said Ryan. “I think that I’ve proven that I can play at the NHL level, not only to myself but to everyone out there that’s watching – Carolina, other teams, everyone. Hopefully that opportunity for the NHL is there, that’s what I’m hoping for, but if I end up having to go back overseas this year or in the future, I’m OK with that as well. It’s a good lifestyle.”
Based on what he showed with the Checkers this past season, it seems safe to say that wherever Ryan ends up, it won’t take much of an adjustment before he’s racking up points once again.