Habs rookie produces beyond expectations

He was drafted in the eighth round, the 216th player taken overall in the 1998 National Hockey League entry draft.

In the NHL, an eighth-rounder enters the area of throwaway picks, ones teams make because someone in the organization knows the kid's father or his coach, or because a scout saw something that just might translate into something for the minor-league system some day.

Going at 216 had to be a humbling experience for Michael Ryder, a player who was ranked considerably higher (149 spots higher according to the NHL's Central Scouting Service that year). But as it has been for his entire career, size was a factor. Ryder is listed at 6 feet, 196 pounds today, but he appears smaller and certainly was thinner back in his draft year.

But if dropping to the eighth round was a low blow for the Montreal Canadiens rookie right winger, he didn't show it then and he doesn't show it now. Then again, being in contention for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie certainly helps ease the hurt.

And why shouldn't it.

Ryder has paid his dues. He played two more years of junior before turning pro in 2000-01 and struggled through the minor-league ranks, where he was demoted to the ECHL -- twice. Yet somewhere in that slide to near bottom in hockey's long-standing pecking order, Ryder found himself and his game. Today, the soon-to-be 24-year-old (March 31) not only has made the jump to the NHL, he's starring in it.

Before Wednesday's game, he ranked first among rookies in goals (23) and points (59) and was tied for first in assists (36). Just as important, perhaps more so in today's defensive-minded NHL, he's tied for second among rookies on the league's plus-minus sheets at a plus-9.

That kind of performance is bound to garner attention when the ballots for postseason honors are passed out. Though Ryder has tough competition with the very noteworthy play of New York Islanders forward Trent Hunter, Boston Bruins goaltender Andrew Raycroft and a handful of impressive young defensemen, his numbers and his everyday approach to the game are difficult to overshadow or overlook.

Ryder has a 12-point lead over Hunter, who previously had garnered most of the attention among forwards in the race. Ryder also has four goals in his last six games, which not only has helped him maintain the lead in the rookie race but has propelled him to within striking distance of the team lead.

It has all been a bit overwhelming for the Bonavista, Newfoundland native, but Ryder is taking it in stride.

"I've been trying to keep things in focus," he said before his arrival in Buffalo for Wednesday night's game. "I've been having a great time this year, but I've also been trying to keep things simple and just do my job."

That could get harder as the regular season winds down and the postseason awards voters start to focus in. Ryder is aware that he's a surging candidate for the Calder, and history shows that it's always better to finish strong than just start that way. Still, he maintains that his only goal is to stay fixated on helping his team find success.

"As the playoffs get closer, it's been starting to sink in a little more, but I really haven't had a chance to worry about it [postseason honors] that much because things have been moving so fast this season," he said. "We've been playing well and concentrating on keeping that going."

Ryder has played a major role in turning the Canadiens into one of the most improved teams in the NHL. Once thought to be fortunate to battle the Islanders for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, the Habs are a good team that is getting better, seemingly every time they hit the ice.

Entering Wednesday night's game, the Canadiens held a six-point lead over the Islanders and trailed the New Jersey Devils, who they lead in wins (40-39), by just two. They have lost just once in their last 14 games and could conceivably catch the fifth-place Ottawa Senators (93 points) or secure home-ice advantage in the first round by catching one of the top four teams, ranging from No.1 Tampa Bay (97 points and not likely) to No. 4 Toronto (94 and not outside the realm of possibility). They've recorded 40 wins and 90 points for the first time in eight seasons, and only Tampa Bay, Detroit and Toronto have more wins. Not bad for what was expected to be a rebuilding year.

Ryder has contributed to the cause with his innate playmaking ability, a quick and strong shot, and a strong commitment to team defense. He also has been particularly effective on the power play, scoring 10 goals and setting up 13 others. He's also good in the clutch, with four game winners to his credit.

Though he started out playing on the checking line earlier this season, Ryder has moved up as his offense has grown -- to the point he was named Rookie of the Month in February with five goals and 12 points in 13 games.

"He isn't afraid to shoot the puck, he has great confidence in his shot," says teammate and now oft-times linemate Alexei Kovalev. "He scores important goals, and that has added to his confidence. When he gets into the offensive zone, all he thinks about is the net."

Well, not always. His defensive commitment has been strong enough for the tough-minded Claude Julien, who also coached Ryder in Hull of the Quebec Major Junior League, where he developed a tough-minded approach to the game, especially in the area of penalty killing. But after leaving Hull, Ryder bounced between the ECHL and the AHL as he both grew and caught on to the bigger man's game. Ryder was reunited with Julien in Hamilton of the AHL in 2002-03, but when the coach got the call to the NHL, Ryder was left behind. But not for long. When the Canadiens opened training camp this season, Ryder didn't have to sell Julien on the 67 points he put up for the Bulldogs or his strong playoff run to Game 7 of the Calder Cup final the year before.

It's that overall game that has helped the Canadiens every bit as much as his scoring. Ryder is not afraid of play in the corners, and he knows how to dig for the puck and how to play hard game in and game out.

Consider also the intensity level that kept him in hockey when so many said he was too small, and the player of today is really not all that different from the skinny kid who scrapped for everything he got along the way.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.