Throughout the many hockey blogs at SB Nation, there are plenty of posts asking “What if?” with respect to a significant part of a team’s history. It could be a game. It could be a draft pick. It could be a trade. For the New Jersey Devils, there is no shortage of What If situations that could be tackled. What if the Devils never hired Lou Lamoriello? What if Dr. John McMullen was more serious about his threat to move the team to Nashville? What if the Devils built an arena in Hoboken instead of Newark? What if they did not trade for or sign Ilya Kovalchuk? What if Zach Parise did not want to go to Minnesota? What if they did not draft Pavel Zacha in 2015? Some of these have been debated, some with more frequency than others. That I even typed “Zacha” will lead to comments going over that draft. Related to that, the SB Nation NHL Twitter account has performed a re-draft of 2015 and Twitter users decided NJ would have picked Zach Werenski instead and Zacha would end up 30th (for what its worth, Mackenzie Blackwood went 27th).
In this post, I want to tackle a What if scenario that is not widely discussed even though it has impacted the NHL as a whole. What if Mike Van Ryn signed with the New Jersey Devils?
What Actually Happened
Since this is a while ago, let us go over what actually happened first and why it matters.
The 1998 NHL Draft is mostly known for two players New Jersey Devils. The Devils selected Scott Gomez at 27th overall. Gomez broke through with the Devils in the 1999-2000 season, won the Calder Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year, and went on to be the team’s top center until he signed with Our Hated Rivals for a massive contract he could not live up to. The Devils also selected Brian Gionta in the third round at 82nd overall. Gionta was officially listed at 5’7” and played like he was 6’7” with his work ethic, grit, and an exceptional shot. Gionta eventually became the team’s top right winger in the mid-2000s and set a new franchise record for most goals in a season with 48 in the 2005-06 season. However, the Devils had another first round selection that would make a different kind of impact. At 26th overall, the Devils drafted defenseman Mike Van Ryn of Michigan.
Back in the late 1990s, college players tended to be overage draft picks. Both Van Ryn and Gionta were 19 when they were drafted in 1998. They also had a full season of college under their respective belts. Van Ryn was coming off a great season at Michigan where he made the All-Freshman team of the NCAA, represented Canada at the WJCs, and helped Michigan win a national championship. Van Ryn went from strength to strength as a sophomore, improving on his production (18 points to 23) and representing Canada again at the WJCs. But Van Ryn was not happy with his professional situation. As per this Sports Illustrated article, which is mostly about Mike Comrie, by Michael Farber from December 04, 2000:
Money is not an issue—rookie free agents are governed by the entry-level salary scale, which, for 2001 draftees, caps their pay for three seasons at $1.13 million a year—but the choice of destinations is.
Van Ryn ... challenged the system because he was wary of the Devils, an organization that keeps a lid on salaries and often requires a lengthy apprenticeship for young players.
While there was no salary cap before 2005, Lou was very particular when it came to contracts. Rookies and young players were expected to take what was offered and pay their dues. At around this time period, hold outs and arbitration hearings were not uncommon by players. Lou fought as much as he could and those arbitration hearings tended to lead to players walking in free agency after that deal was up, such as Claude Lemieux and Bobby Holik. Given that the Devils were a very successful team in this time period, it is hard to say how Lou did business was not working.
Furthermore, as Van Ryn was a college player, the Devils would have his rights for quite sometime. As per this Tim Warnsby post in The Globe and Mail from September 10, 2008, teams would own a college player’s rights for two years after they finished school. If Van Ryn did not like what he would be offered in an entry level contract - and he did not - then he did not have much of an option. He would have had little leverage in any negotiations with Lou; and the Devils would have his rights for several more years. It seemed like Van Ryn was stuck - then he found a loophole.
While teams held a college player’s rights beyond their schooling, teams only had the rights to a junior player for two years. If they are 20 or younger, then they could re-enter the draft. If they are 21 or over, then they would become an unrestricted free agent. In the Canadian Hockey League, which oversees the three major junior leagues, players who were 20 years old and would turn 21 during or after the season were allowed as overage players. Van Ryn was born on May 14, 1979 and he was 20 after the 1998-99 season. He still had eligibility to play junior hockey and provided a team would have room for him, he was willing to make the move. Sarnia did have the room and so Van Ryn played in the Ontario Hockey League in the 1999-2000 season.
This did not go over well with Lou. He would argue that the Devils would still have his rights since he left school. Van Ryn sued in response, challenging the practice altogether in order to make this move. The case went to arbitration. As per Farber’s article, arbitrator Lawrence Holden ruled in June 2000 that Van Ryn could become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) after completion of his overage season in junior hockey. Van Ryn took on Lou and the system and won. As per this June 2000 USCHO report, the Devils did get a second round pick as compensation but Lou was understandably not pleased. According to Warnby’s post, this is how Van Ryn reflected on the case:
“It wasn’t a matter of taking on Lou,” said Van Ryn, a two-time Canadian junior team member. “It was a matter of standing up for what I believed was fair.
“I think I’m a person who likes things or situations that are fair. I have beliefs and if I see something that I need to stand up for, I will. I’m not afraid to stand up for myself. I’m actually happy the way it turned out.”
As Van Ryn finished his one and only overage season in junior, the 21-year old as then an UFA. The right-shooting defenseman was courted by Toronto, Los Angeles, and the team he would sign with: St. Louis as per Warnsby’s article. I presume he got more money on his entry level contract. What about the playing time? That did not come right away.
Van Ryn played in St. Louis’ first game of the 2000-01 season on October 05, 2000 and suffered a significant shoulder injury. When he recovered, he spent the remainder of that season with Worcestor, St. Louis’ affiliate at the time. He would not appear for the Blues until December 21, 2001 in the following season. Even after that season, his time was split between the NHL and AHL until he was dealt to Florida in 2003 as the return for Valeri Bure and Florida’s fourth round pick in 2005. With the Panthers, Van Ryn was consistently in the Panthers’ lineup and was quite productive as he put up 25 goals and 80 assists in 257 games with Florida. As per Warnsby’s article, he had wrist injuries towards the end of the 2006-07 season and that contributed to a very short 2007-08 campaign of just 20 games. Van Ryn was looking for a fresh start in Toronto, who traded Bryan McCabe and a fourth rounder in 2010 in September 2008. His time in Toronto was plagued with more wrist and knee injuries. After suffering a concussion from an awful hit by Tom Kostopolous in November 2009, and in conjunction with his injuries, Van Ryn retired and went right into coaching. He has risen through the junior and minor league ranks in this past decade. Van Ryn was hired as an assistant coach with the Blues on May 30, 2018 and was on the staff for their first Stanley Cup. While his player career was tumultous, he did play throughout the 2000s and has become a rather successful coach.
The Devils, well, you know what they did in the early 2000s. They won the Cup in 2000 and 2003 and came close in 2001. They continued to be a contender throughout the decade. That 2000 second round pick as compensation brought the Devils up to four for that year, where they picked Teemu Laine, Alexander Suglobov, Matt DeMarchi, and Paul Martin in that round. I do not know which one was the compensation pick, but they hit big on one out of those four at least.
What about that loophole? That is where the big impact comes in. While Van Ryn may have not been the first to use that loophole, that he successfully won an arbitration hearing against Lou Lamoriello definitely got the attention of the teams. As did when Mike Comrie - the focus of Farber’s post - utilized it. The Ontario Hockey League was not exactly pleased with the idea of more college players switching to major juniors for one season, so they banned the practice in 2001. The union was not happy about it and sued the OHL. Unless I am mistaken, this led to Canadian major junior leagues putting in a rule that overage players must play the previous season in junior hockey. This is known as the Van Ryn rule per Warnsby’s article.
As far as the NHL side, this loophole contributed to how teams held the rights of college players. As per the current CBA, Section 8.6(c) for College Players goes into great details about how long a team has their exclusive rights for negotiation when the player goes to college and plays all four years, does not stay in college for four years, or if they are drafted from college at age 20 among other situations. Essentially, even if a drafted player leaves college, that player only becomes a UFA until August 15 of what would have been their graduating class. (Aside: Junior players who go to other leagues also do not have their rights changed until they turn 20.) This, combined with the CHL’s changes, would have meant that what Van Ryn and Mike Comrie did would not have worked the way they though it would. The changes in 8.6(c) did lead to another door opening for college players who do not want to sign with whomever drafted them. As we saw with Jimmy Vesey, Alex Kerfoot, Adam Fox, and Will Butcher, a college player can play all four years and - presuming they did well enough - then hit the market and decide where they want to go as a free agent.
In other words, what Van Ryn did led to changes in how the CHL handled overage players and it led to the current situation with college players, where fans and teams do worry when a player decides to play their senior season in college instead of signing a contract. That is a rather significant impact.
Now that I explained what happened, let us consider the headline question.
What if Mike Van Ryn Signed with the Devils?
Let us suppose that back in 1999 or 2000, Mike Van Ryn was interested in being a New Jersey Devil, he was willing to sign whatever Lou would offer, and he would take whatever pathway that would bring him to East Ruthersford, New Jersey.
In terms of the impact on college players and the transfer of college and junior players, I am not so sure the changes we have today would have happened. Or at least not necessarily last decade. I do not know if Van Ryn was the first to use the previous loophole, but I do know he was the first one to legally challenge it. If that challenge did not happen, then perhaps it is not in the minds of the GMs and other members of the NHL Board of Governors that drove the CBA talks in 2005 and 2012.
Then again, Mike Comrie was a high-profile case in using this loophole as well. Farber’s article in SI was more about him rather than Van Ryn. Comrie did jump to juniors from Michigan too, but he did sign with the same team who drafted him, Edmonton. Comrie’s departure from Edmonton was also high-profile. Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe had a deal to send Comrie to Anaheim for Corey Perry (!) and Ladislav Smid, but Lowe demanded that Comrie pay back some of the bonus money from his contract before the deal. That failed and the trade fell through; but I would think Comrie’s past definitely drew attention and could have been on the list of something to fix. Similarly, Comrie’s jump to the OHL could have led to similar restrictions on overagers that they did impact. On the original hand, perhaps Comrie does not follow his fellow Wolverine if Van Ryn was perfectly fine with being a Devil. If so, then these overager restrictions in the CHL and the changes to college player draft rights in the NHL would have come later if at all. And if they still happened, it would be in reference to someone else.
As far as what it would mean for the Devils, I am not sure it initially moves the needle. Even if the Devils signed Van Ryn early out of college, I do not know if there would be room for him on New Jersey’s blueline. The 2000-01 Devils were remarkably stacked with talent. The defense was led by Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer with plenty of support by Brian Rafalski and Colin White. Ken Daneyko was still a regular and played 77 games that season. The #6 spot was rotated among Ken Sutton and Sean O’Donnell. While Niedermayer missed a large chunk of that season with just 57 games played, I do not think Van Ryn would have jumped ahead Mike Commodore, Sasha Goc, or Willie Mitchell in the system - nevermind Sutton and later O’Donnell. He would have faced a similar situation to what he had in St. Louis; he maybe would get a call-up but still play plenty of AHL hockey. But in the early part of the 2000s, I do not think Van Ryn would have necessarily made the Devils any better or worse. Maybe his presence would dissuade some of the deals that were done, or he would be used as part of a package to bring in a veteran talent. The same goes for the 2002-03 team. Maybe Van Ryn being in the system would have got him involved ahead of Tommy Albelin, Ken Daneyko, or Richard Smhelik; or maybe Petr Sykora does not get dealt for Oleg Tverdovsky but for someone else. I still do not think he makes that Devils squad that much better or any worse.
As the decade turned to the mid-2000s, I think Van Ryn would have been able to grab a regular spot on the blueline after Stevens and Daneyko hung it up and Niedermayer moved on. By that point, Sutton, O’Donnell, Goc, Mitchell and Commodore were long gone. Van Ryn would have been 24 and could presumably get games of Sean Brown and Ray Giroux in 2003-04. Perhaps a regular spot ahead of David Hale or Paul Martin. If Van Ryn was retained for that long, then maybe Lou does not sign all three of Richard Matvichuk, Vladimir Malakhov, and Dan McGillis since he had a 26-year old Van Ryn in 2005-06. He may have signed two of them but not all three. Likewise, Van Ryn’s inclusion in the lineup could have led to less of a drive to go out and get defenders like Johnny Oduya, Andy Greene, or Mike Mottau among others. I would like to think Van Ryn would be as productive or even more productive being on power plays with Patrik Elias, Gionta, Gomez, and later a young Parise and Travis Zajac as well as at even strength.
Of course, throughout this time period, perhaps an experienced Van Ryn with success would have made him trade-worthy to bring in a significant asset to the team to try to get them to where they were at the beginning of the decade.
Lastly, assuming Van Ryn would sitll transition into coaching after being a player, a past history of the Devils could have had him on the staff in Newark at some point. While I do not know what he does in St. Louis or how good he is at it, he has had success as a staffer and in two separate seasons as a head coach in junior and AHL hockey. He could have been on staff now and perhaps groomed to be a head coach here. This is even more of a long shot, but this is a “what if” after all.
Final Thoughts & What Do You Think?
Mike Van Ryn never suited up for the New Jersey Devils. Yet, he managed to have an impact on them as well as 29 other teams and all of Canadian junior hockey with his transition to junior hockey and arbitration case that led him to become a free agent at age 21. As much as his playing career was decent and cut short due to significant injuries and his ongoing and rising coaching career, that is arguably his biggest impact on the game. Most drafted players do not make it at all. Van Ryn did and he played a notable role in rules being changed that affect college players and teams today. That is rare.
Some may say that the NHL closing the loophole Van Ryn used opened up another one. I do not see the current situation with college players as being a loophole. Section 8.6(c) of the CBA is forthright about how long the rights last and what governs when the player can become a free agent. I do not think a team who drafts any player from any league should have their rights indefinitely or for an incredible amount of time. Given that teams have until the player turns 20 to sign them out of juniors and juniors allows players to have contracts, there has to be limits on the other sources. Limiting college-bound and college-based prospects to the term of their college schooling is a reasonable one. Perhaps that can be brought into alignment with juniors if the NCAA relaxes their definition of amateurism to allow players to sign ELCs and still play in college. That is not likely going to happen anytime soon, if at all.
In any case, I would like to know your take about Mike Van Ryn and what he did. If you remember those days, how did you react? What do you make of it today? What do you think would have happened if Van Ryn wanted to stay and signed an entry level deal with the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this point of Devils and NHL history in the comments. (And any corrections, I apologize if I was mistaken about something in this post.) Thank you for reading.