FOR ONCE something newsworthy hung over Bobby Ryan that wasn't about his potential or the salary cap or his extraordinary (and messy) family story: a message on the jumbotron. As the puck was dropped to start the third period of last week's Blackhawks-Ducks game in Anaheim, the scoreboard reported that Ryan's 11th goal of January—a power-play tip-in during period one, in which Ryan planted himself to the left of the Chicago crease, extended his improbably long stick and redirected a Chris Pronger shot—was the most by a rookie in a month since Alexander Ovechkin's 11 in March 2006. "I probably shouldn't be telling you this," said second-year center Ryan Carter, sitting next to Ryan on the Ducks' bench, "but that's awesome." Fearing a camera would catch him, Ryan, a 21-year-old with dancing eyes, suppressed a smile.
This might have been the first time Ryan had been linked to Ovechkin. Usually the winger has been juxtaposed with the NHL's other young darling, Sidney Crosby—and not in a good way. Crosby went first to Pittsburgh in the 2005 draft. Anaheim then made Ryan the answer to a trivia question, choosing the Owen Sound Attack forward at No. 2 over defenseman Marc Staal, whom some in the Ducks' organization coveted. Crosby leaped immediately to stardom and sports drink commercials. Ryan? At his first rookie camp, three months after the draft, his fitness level was so poor that the Ducks' trainer had him ride a stationary bike for two of the three days instead of skating with the others.
"How long do I have to go?" Ryan called out one day while pedaling furiously.
"All the way back to Owen Sound," said then general manager Brian Burke, who, unbeknownst to Ryan, had slipped into the room.
Ordinarily the second player drafted goes to a team that needs him immediately. The 2005 draft, however, was anything but ordinary because the order of selection in that post-lockout summer was determined randomly. Ryan went to an organization stacked at the NHL level, one that would reach the Western Conference final in 2006 and win the Stanley Cup in '07. "We were loyal and didn't make changes," says Bob Murray, then Burke's second in command and now his successor. "No young players were making our team." While Ryan was stalled in juniors and later the AHL, others picked behind Crosby were making an impact, including Staal (selected at No. 12 by the New York Rangers) and, gallingly, Anze Kopitar, who had been taken 11th by rival Los Angeles.
"Everybody was kind of wondering, Where's our kid?" recalls Pronger, a defenseman taken second overall in 1993. "Everybody wants to write off a 19-, 20-year-old when they don't even know how good he can be."
Finally arriving on Nov. 15—following a few quick peeks last season and a strong preseason in September, Ryan was kept in the AHL until the Ducks could clear cap space—he has been worth the wait. Ryan had a five-game goal streak snapped last Saturday in Colorado but still ranked first among rookies, with 17 goals and second in points with 34, despite playing 11 fewer games than Chicago's Kris Versteeg, the leader through Sunday with 38. The 6'2" Ryan has shuttled between lines, but his size and vision have earned him important power-play time. He has thrust himself into the Calder Trophy conversation along with Columbus goalie Steve Mason and Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who calls Ryan the toughest forward he faced in junior hockey.
He is a righthanded shot who shifted to left wing last season, providing him a better angle to shoot one-timers. He is a svelte 208, down some 15 pounds from his biking-to-Owen-Sound weight. Although hardly an elegant skater—he bends from the waist so his body resembles a question mark—Ryan moves with surprising alacrity and purpose when the puck is on his stick. Says Burke, now Toronto's G.M., "God smiled when He handed out those pair of hands to that boy.... If Bobby turns into the player I think he can, he'll be a star."
At last Ryan is making a name for himself, though it is a name he was forced to adopt after a sin of his father's nearly destroyed his family.
THE DUCKS scheduled their annual Father's Trip around games with the Rangers and Islanders last month in New York, a few days of team and generational bonding. Ryan asked if the father-son dinner was mandatory; Murray, the G.M., said yes. "I'd wanted time to catch up with my dad and not be in a crowd," says Ryan, who hadn't seen his father since June. "He's not good in that environment, not comfortable with a lot of people around after what he went through when he was away."