Until last month, Ryan McKiernan hadn’t played as a forward in over six years and was having one of the best seasons of any rookie defenceman in the country. In the 18 games before Christmas he notched 12 points—the fourth-most by any OUA freshman defenceman—as his McGill Redmen stormed to a 16-0-2 record.
Yet when the Redmen returned from the Christmas break, the lifelong defenceman was playing forward.
“It had been a while since I’d played forward,” McKiernan said. “But everyone wants to be known as a versatile player, so I was excited to give it a try.”
McKiernan was an atypical selection for the move from defence to forward. Most blueliners who make the transition are big, bruising types—like Dustin Byfuglien with the Chicago Blackhawks or the Ottawa Gee-Gees’ Dylan Hole—not puck-moving, offensive defenceman.
But with the return of Keven Dupont from an offseason operation that had caused him to miss the first half of the year, McGill suddenly had seven capable defencemen, and not enough ice time to go around.
Add in a glut of injuries to forwards—Francis Verreault-Paul, Andrew Wright, Patrick Belzile, and Jean-Francois Boisvert have all missed significant time—and the Redmen were in dire need of some help up front.
“We decided not to move someone up front who could just be an extra body,” said McGill Head Coach Kelly Nobes. “[McKiernan] could move up and be an impact forward.”
According to Nobes, with all their injuries, McGill needed a top-six forward. McKiernan wouldn’t just be changing positions—he’d be skating on the second line of the team ranked second in the nation.
“He’s given us some real depth by being effective on one of our top lines,” Nobes said. “It’s great that he’s looked at this as an opportunity to improve as a player, and help his team, rather than thinking ‘Aw, I’m being taken out of my position.'”
In 10 games as a forward, McKiernan has registered eight points. But according to his coaching staff and his teammates, the most impressive part of McKiernan’s transition has been adjusting to the nuances of positioning as a winger.
“It’s knowing where to be in the different scenarios that’s the tough part,” Nobes said. “He’s done a nice job with our defensive zone coverages, especially since we’ve adjusted some of our systems because of the injuries.”
According to Nobes, the move to forward may not be permanent for McKiernan. If McGill’s injured forwards all return for the playoffs, McKiernan will likely shift back to defence.
“Ideally, Ryan would be playing defence, because that’s where he helps the team the most,” Nobes said. “But he gives us a unique ability to be flexible with our lines.”
McKiernan is also unique in that he’s the first American to play hockey for McGill in the last 12 years. His heritage is a fact that is not lost on his teammates.
“Whenever I hear a [French insult] and the word ‘American’ in the same sentence, I know they’re referring to me,” McKiernan said.
McKiernan should be used to that particular display of Quebecois affection, however, as he spent two years playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the Drummondville Voltigeurs and the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, before coming to McGill.
After planning to play American college hockey as a child, McKiernan was introduced to the McGill coaching staff by his coach in Drummondville, Guy Boucher—a McGill alumnus who is the current head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Boucher introduced me to the McGill hockey program and it was a no-brainer to come here,” McKiernan said. “It was a chance to play on a great hockey team and go to the best school in Canada at the same time.”
That decision has paid off for McKiernan, as the Redmen are ranked second in the nation and are a favorite to capture the school’s first-ever University Cup—a goal that McKiernan will do almost anything to further.
“I’ll play wherever the team needs me,” McKiernan said. “Forward or defence—anything to help us get closer to Nationals.”