Nick Ritchie. If nothing else, he is a polarising figure amongst the Ducks faithful.
The former junior hockey “star” came to the Ducks as the #10 overall draft selection in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, after going at nearly a point per game pace (0.99 ppg) in the OHL. He instantly became the new poster child for players fans don’t want to develop properly, and instead be brought into the team immediately because they’re “ready.” This narrative of him being “ready” continued with his 30 points in 38 games AHL stint (0.79 ppg).
Management heard those vocal fans, and Ritchie was granted his NHL roster spot. Since then Ritchie has played in 186 NHL regular season games scoring 59 points (0.32 ppg) and adding 4 goals in 19 (0.21 ppg) postseason appearances.
Like fans are wont to do, the knives have slowly started coming out as a knee-jerk reaction to that lack of scoring in the big leagues. All of a sudden, the young draft pick with great size, an innate ability to play in front of the net, and a mean streak had lost his lustre. Exacerbating his scoring woes has been Ritchie’s prevalence to doubling down on this “mean streak” and taking penalties. A lot of penalties. Some pretty horrific ones to boot.
Note: I absolutely think he should have had the book thrown at him for these acts. This type of play needs to be rubbed out of the game.
Today, Ritchie is one of the many Restricted Free Agents (RFA) around the league who remains unsigned with training camp already underway. Former Duck Shea Theodore is one of the other notables.
Ducks GM Bob Murray said there have been lots of conversations regarding unsigned RFA Nick Ritchie but that they're not at all close on a deal. Ritchie is working out with the OHL's Guelph Storm.— Eric Stephens (@icemancometh) September 14, 2018
Partially in response to this “hold out,” and partially in response to Ritchie’s seemingly underwhelming play, articles have popped up across various hockey-news sites questioning whether it’s time for the Ducks to move on from him. Fans across the Twitterverse are eager to move on from him and force the next new hotness to not be developed properly and be brought into the team early.
However, aside from my usual diatribe about rushing prospects, I also think moving on from Ritchie is premature, and in some cases short-sighted.
Firstly, I think its worth mentioning the assets that he does have. Namely, Ritchie has a shot. His wrist shot is a thing of beauty. It is tremendously hard, with a smooth release. This in it’s own right is something the Ducks are severely lacking. They have shooters, but none have the power that Ritchie can generate. It can be in the back of the net before the goaltender even knows that he’s shot the puck.
In addition to scoring, Ritchie’s hard shot, like that of all hard shooters, has the ability to create rebounds. As we know, the chance to score off rebounds is one of the highest percentage shots in the game. Ritchie, when rated on a per minute of ice time basis, has created the most rebounds on the team (assuming a minimum of 300 minutes played) in 2 of his 3 seasons, and created the 3rd most, in his 3rd season.
In addition to his hard shot, Ritchie has soft, yet quick hands in and around the net. The type of hands required to score in close and when space is at a premium.
All of this isn't to say that Ritchie is a goal scoring machine waiting to break out. It does, however, highlight that he does indeed have some tools to work with. It would be my belief that in the right situation those assets could be put to good use. A savvy coach would search for that situation.
With respect to Ritchie’s scoring contributions, I would also argue that his shortfalls have been largely overblown. In both of the last 2 seasons, Ritchie has scored at more than double the rate of his debut season. His 2016-2017 season was quite obviously the better season, yet in total points he only dropped 0.11 per 60 minutes of ice time from that high water mark. To put that in perspective, he scored exactly 1 less point in 1 less game.
I certainly understand that people are disappointed in Ritchie’s seemingly low points totals. 27 points and 28 points are certainly not much to talk about. Yet it should be noted that these totals (by rate) were the 6th and 9th most efficient scoring rates on the team. Goal scoring efficiency has been 4th and 9th, and assist rates ranked 7th and 8th in the past 2 seasons. This goes with his 7th and 8th on team ranking for raw points.
All this is to say that Nick Ritchie has easily performed as a 3rd line forward in terms of pure production on the Ducks. His 27 points ranked 229th in the NHL this season, which is also well within the range of 3rd liners across the league (the range being 186-279). This is closely mirrored for total goals.
To my mind it seems premature to force a performing 3rd liner out of the team to introduce a new prospect into the team, and in a (presumably) 3rd line role, hoping that they perform up to that level. Why not give that prospect more minutes and responsibility in a lesser league, out of the spot light, and hope that they can come in ready for a top 6 role (if and/or when such a position becomes available on this veteran Ducks team).
In addition to raw scoring results, consider also that Ritchie ranked the 3rd highest on the team for corsi for attempts last season. This result coming on the back of a 4th rank the season before. At this stage it appears that the offensive outcomes while Ritchie is on the ice improve in each of the seasons he’s been playing. You hope that a young player will improve, and thus far it appears that this is the case.
This relationship as well as team ranking becomes slightly more interesting when taking his rebounds created stats into account and when viewing on-ice scoring chances. For instance, Ritchie had the 5th most scoring chances (per minute) of the forwards on the team last season, placing him in the middle 6 grouping. However, he had the 2nd most high-danger attempts behind only Ryan Getzlaf. Both of these results are slight improvements from the season before (7th on team for both). It should also be noted that on-ice goals for while Ritchie is on the ice, has increased from 1.15, to 2.2, and finally to 2.42, in this past season
Despite Ritchie’s raw scoring (insignificantly) going down, his ability to facilitate the offense seems to be trending in the upwards direction. This rising trend also crosses over to his linemates. Typically speaking, his linemates over the past 2 seasons have seen an uptick in corsi for while on the ice with Ritchie. This includes Ryan Getzlaf as well as Adam Henrique and Ondrej Kase. Quite a boon coming from a 3rd liner, and one that is merely 22 years of age (turning 23 this coming season, in December).
To put that in perspective, current fan favourite Rickard Rakell, in the season he turned 22, had less goals (9 to Ritchie’s 10 in that season) and 88 fewer games of NHL experience to his name. By this, I mean to say that Rakell had a far more traditional development curve, and that we had far less data from which to judge/project him on. His AHL scoring pace was not significantly greater to that of Ritchie (0.85 ppg, to Ritchie’s 0.79), and he played in more games in that (the AHL) league.
This isn’t to say that Ritchie will transform into a two-time 30-goal scorer. But I would suggest that given the uptrend of his offensive contributions, that giving up on a not-yet 23 year old top-10 draft pick may be somewhat premature.
Typically, teams attempt to bring their highly touted scoring players into a team with a soft entry and gifting them power play time to build their confidence and pad their stats. Ritchie, for some reason, hasn't been awarded that opportunity.
Over the past 3 seasons, the highest Ritchie has ranked for power play ice time is 9th amongst forward with 33 seconds per game. This last season he slipped to 14th amongst forwards and 25 seconds per game. This, despite Ritchie generating the highest rate of corsi for attempts and high danger chances this past season.
He was also ranked 5th for goals for, ahead of Rickard Rakell and fan favourite Ondrej Kase. This builds on his ~5th ranks across these stats in the previous season and replicates the improvement (and the quality) seen at even strength.
This is both a point of interest and a point of condemnation. The Ducks power play over the past few seasons has been poor to say the least. Not playing your highly touted youngster, who appears to be able to facilitate scoring on the power play, seems to be an issue of the highest order.
For a team that appears to be particularly beholden to “mistake-free” hockey, perhaps there is rhyme to that reason. There is no ducking the issue. Nick Ritchie is a hugely flawed player on the defensive side of the puck, often looking out of position and lost on the ice. For a team leading the charge towards “safe” and “mistake-free” hockey, this could be the kiss of death.
I would argue that his shortfalls don't appear to be a physical issue, in that his being out of position isn't a foot speed issue - although he could stand to improve somewhat. Ritchie’s top end speed appears to be quite average, and on the other side, his acceleration over the first couple steps appears to be really quite quick. That is to say, Ritchie won’t beat many players in a race to the puck over 100 ft, although he very well may over 10 ft. Look at the one touch pass - one timer goal video above. If he was not capable of getting in front of players this goal wouldn't be possible.
Thus, more than a physical issue, I would suggest his issues appear to be more mental. Ritchie doesn’t appear to think the game through well. Should this be the case, there are multiple points of blame.
Firstly, the blame lies with the player. Ritchie is a 3rd year pro now and he needs to work harder than he’s ever worked to bridge gaps in his ability. Were I him, I would stick like glue to another former junior/college scoring star on the team. Andrew Cogliano. Cogliano was a brilliant scorer prior to coming into the NHL, and didn't quite continue that trend. Since then, he has become one of the best defensive forwards in the game, and resilient to boot. I would suggest that Ritchie needs to spend a lot of time reviewing tape, and then perform game-simulations to understand how the game is flowing. Being bigger than the opposition is no longer the same option it was when he was in junior, and Ritchie needs to add to his tool kit. Cogliano can assist him in making that transition, despite the differences in their games.
Given opposition players, at times, mocked the weight Ritchie carried around his gut, training with a man renowned for being in great shape can only help. Initially, a decrease in body fat percentage will help to increase Ritchie’s foot speed. It’s a simple case of inertia. A slimmer Ritchie has less adipose tissue to move around, and thus even should he remain of a similar strength, a shift in “power” will occur. However, it seem most likely that a training regime that would decrease his body fat percentage would also increase strength and power. All taken together, this would increase Ritchie’s foot speed overall, effectively turning a disadvantage into an advantage.
RC said the longer a player misses camp, usually the worse it is for him. But he saw Ritchie over the summer and, I'm paraphrasing, said he looked like a different person after training with Gary Roberts. Sounded impressed.— Eric Stephens (@icemancometh) September 14, 2018
Given the above tweet, it very well could be that this hasn’t been lost on Ritchie. If this is true, then it’s plausible, given Ritchies upward trending results, for him to become a far more effective player going forward. It would be a shame to cut a player loose just as he’s “getting” what it means to be a professional athlete.
Additionally, occasionally going for a surf with Cogs might chill Ritchie out a bit and stop him from taking so many penalties. I would suggest that with the current climate within the Ducks (and a coach that has been oft quoted about toughness), Ritchie has put a focus on the “toughness” aspect, so to retain his position in the face of a lack of scoring and power play/top 6 opportunity. A more relaxed and happy demeanour (yes surfing makes you happy, this is backed by science) may allow Ritchie to relax and focus on the good parts of his game.
Nonetheless, Ritchie needs to do more.
Secondly, blame lies with the coaches. Why has Ritchie not been given more of a chance to succeed? He scored just under 30 points with no power play time. Who’s to say he couldn't acquire an extra 10 points with the man advantage if he had the extra 1 minute 15 seconds per game that Jakob Silfverberg did? Even the extra 50 seconds per game that Vermette received could have helped get Ritchie on track. Hell, given his stats in the area, he could facilitate even more than 10 points.
The coach in charge of the power play was given the chop in the offseason. Let’s see if the man taking over is willing to roll the dice on a youngster with a lethal shot.
More than that, why did the coaches allow Ritchie to sink into his “mean” guy role, instead of attempting to foster his scoring abilities? For a team absolutely starved of talent and scoring, it would seem that a junior scoring “star” who had crushed his short stint in the AHL would be a blessing.
Consider that over their first NHL season, the player most Ritchie-protestors most often look to (Dylan Larkin) had ~164 power play minutes to Ritchies ~22. In seasons 2 and 3, this discrepancy was ~150 and ~177, to ~42 and ~32, in favour of Larkin.
Discussing whether or not Larkin is the superior player seems somewhat moot when one player has been asked to score in an opportune situation and the other has not. It’s a small wonder that Larkin is praised for his scoring. It should also be noted that Ritchie has superior corsi for results over Larkin over their career thus far (last season was a wash) at even strength. The mean career results for corsi against are largely a wash. In scoring chances too, Ritchie measures up well. Raw scoring chances for are largely a wash (0.25 difference in rate per 60 minutes), yet Ritchie is much better at generating scoring chances in high danger areas (11.73 to 9.87), a likely result of Ritchie’s far superior ability to generate rebounds.
Given the Ducks difficulties, and that Ritchie measures up relatively well across offensive and defensive statistical measures with one of the gold standards of his draft class, it would appear that toughness should have been a luxury item more than a necessity.
Thirdly, blame lies with the Ducks organisation at a managerial level. Physical and mental development are things that could have been worked out in the AHL away from the spotlight. Rushing a prospect after a hot quarter season was always fraught with danger, and is more often than not a sure way to foster failure rather than success. It’s too late to take back time, but they can learn from this in the future and with newer prospects.
More pointedly, with Ritchie entering into his 4th season and about to turn 23 years of age, they can address his development and put some onus on the coaches and the player to foster an offensive game worthy of his draft status. After all, there is little reason to draft goal scoring players if they will not be used in a position to score goals. What might be proper usage for a veteran player should not be the pathway for a high-level prospect.
The Ducks would do well to explore Ritchie’s offensive potential before moving on from him. It’s certainly nice to hype prospects that have yet to play the game at professional level (i.e. the current prospect pool), but it would be a terrible turn of events to move on from a relatively recent top 10 pick and see him succeed elsewhere. A plausible outcome should his offensive trends continue to track upwards.
Ritchie has the tools to succeed, if he’s put into a position to succeed. He, himself, needs to work his ass off. But in response to that, the Ducks need to accept some mistakes and play him in the proper positions to use his gifts. They selected Ritchie in the draft for the assets he demonstrated. Moving on from him without putting him into a position to utilise those assets would appear to a be foolish.
[Editor’s note: Benny I’m going to have put a limit on the amount of anime references you put in your articles this season, I mean damn - CJ]
My proposal would be to set him up in Oveckin’s office on the power play. This would mitigate his lack of hockey knowledge and defensive shortcomings, while taking advantage of his hard shot. If teams give him space, he can make them pay. If teams clue into him, that gives Rakell and others time and space. For a team that struggles to score, and struggles to create rebounds, it seems crazy to move on from a former high draft pick who can immediately help with those issues.
I understand that the Ducks are at the forefront of the “mistake free” hockey movement, yet they should attempt to let their players be who they are. Should the Ducks choose to move on from him, there’s a good chance he’ll become some team’s Cogliano. That is to say a fan favourite who does his job without the baggage of the top 10 draft moniker attached. It will be a different job, but a great coach is going to find his best fit and make it happen.
I’m hoping that coach is going to be employed by the Ducks, and you should too.
*Shot metrics data collected from naturalstattrick.com
All Even Strength data was calculated assuming 300 minutes played or more.
All Power Play data accounted for at least 20 minutes played over the season.