It’s about time that some of Boston Bruins forward Nick Ritchie’s more vocal critics should start eating some crow.
There was a healthy number of naysayers at last season’s trade deadline when the Bruins acquired the hulking Ritchie in a deal with the Ducks where they sent underachieving winger Danton Heinen back to Anaheim. The 25-year-old Ritchie didn’t exactly silence the peanut gallery when he arrived, either, with just a goal and two points in seven games along with a minus-2 rating prior to the season going on COVID-19 pause for months.
Then Ritchie managed just a single point in eight playoff games played inside the Toronto bubble and averaged two penalty minutes a game during the postseason. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder looked exactly like what he was at the time: A talented new player on a new team that didn’t quite understand where he fit and didn’t enjoy the normal amount of time needed to figure things out.
Ritchie was written off as a big, slow winger that appeared out-of-shape during his Boston Bruins stints, but a funny thing happened when the former first round pick was finally given a full offseason and training camp to get used to his surroundings. The B’s power forward discovered his niche as a middle-6 winger and a massive net-front presence on the top power play unit, and he has two goals and five points in five games for the Boston Bruins this season.
Meanwhile, Heinen has one point in six games for the Ducks this season and is back to being mostly invisible in Anaheim just as he was for long stretches of time with the Boston Bruins. In hindsight, this trade was a no-brainer and exposed some hockey media folks as biased against Ritchie because he isn’t a sleek, greyhound kind of player.
“Nick Ritchie has the ability to make some plays,” said Bruce Cassidy of the big winger, who has moved up to second line left wing with David Krejci after skating on the third line with Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith throughout training camp. “We knew that all along. It didn’t work out the way anybody wanted it to at the end of last year. It’s a new year and that’s a guy that can contribute. He had at least one or two seasons [in Anaheim] where he looked like an offensive guy, but how high up he’d go is hard to say with a young player. When he came to us, we were trying to get bigger with [strong] guys that can play.
“We were told when we got him that there was some work to be done to get him up higher in our lineup, so we knew that going in. All the elements last year just didn’t go his way, so we gave him a fresh start. We weren’t going to judge based on two weeks after we got him [in a trade] and in the bubble. But we also set expectations and told him ‘this is the way we do things in Boston.’ We talked about what his role would be, being a team player and discipline and what we expected out of him in practice. One of those things [we talked about] was the net-front spot on the power play and that’s something that really appealed to him.”
It’s clearly suiting him on the ice as well.
Four of the five points, and both of his goals, have come on the power play working with the top unit of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Matt Grzelcyk. Ritchie’s ability to manhandle defensemen in front of the net, win battles on puck retrieval and harass the goalie with screens has been integral to the power play’s early season success, and has allowed the big winger to pile up points in the early going.
He also fed Marchand a slick cross-ice pass for a power play goal in Saturday night’s win over the Flyers that showed the hands and offensive instincts that go along with the brute force.
Nick Ritchie ➡️ Brad Marchand.
5-1 Bruins. pic.twitter.com/3pauPJRvD9
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) January 24, 2021
“You just want to go out and play hockey and some of those physical strengths that I do have I use to my advantage,” said Ritchie. “But it’s also about making plays, going to the net and shooting the puck, so it’s just about playing hockey along with using those [attributes].”
The one question is the consistency piece as the compacted 56-game schedule gets more challenging, of course. It will be important for Ritchie to maintain his level of play to keep his spot in the lineup with competition about to get fierce when Pastrnak returns to play.
“He’s really good down around the net where he’s strong on pucks he makes quick, little plays. We’re starting to build that chemistry. It’s great to have him there. He’s another guy working hard right now to step his game up and he is,” said Marchand. “He’s been really good so far this year and we need that. We need guys stepping up every night. We need everybody to be consistent. That’s the hardest thing with this league.
“A lot of guys can come in and have a few good games but bringing it every night with the schedule and the travel is hard to do. That’s what separates the very best players in the league. So far he’s been very good this year.”
Ritchie never scored more than 14 goals or 31 points in a season during his five years with the Ducks, but he also never played before with skill guys like Marchand, Bergeron, David Pastrnak and David Krejci. So, it will be interesting to see what the talented winger can do over the course of a full season in Boston, and it will be interesting to see what the big-bodied presence of Ritchie and Trent Frederic can do to make the B’s lineup a bit bigger and badder than last year.
But one thing is certain: There should be a massive mea culpa from the fancy stats enthusiasts that barbequed Don Sweeney a year ago after dealing for Ritchie, and a little more appreciation for things that can’t be measured when it comes to the overall game of a 6-foot-2, 230-pound bruiser with an excellent pair of hands.
Winning battles in front of the net with size, strength and a little snarl can’t really be measured in bar graphs and pie charts.
Ritchie is showing this season he’s going to be able to help the Boston Bruins, and maybe that shouldn’t be such a big surprise based on the circumstances.