The Maple Leafs have seemingly capped off their bargain free agent signings with the most notable name and highest-price forward signing of the bunch so far, bringing in Nick Ritchie on a two-year, $2.5 million AAV contract.
Fans in these parts will need no introduction to the 6’2, 230-pound Ritchie. The Leafs famously selected William Nylander over him at eighth overall in 2014 (which was absolutely the right call) much to the ire of some fans due to his physical nature in comparison to Nylander and the general Toronto team at the time for that matter. Seven years after the draft, the Leafs now have both players, with Ritchie added out of the FA pool.
The Orangeville native is coming off a season in which he shot 12.4% — the second-highest of his career, but not all that much higher than his 9.5% career average — en route to a career-high 15 goals. If he maintained the scoring pace, it likely would have been the first time in his career that Ritchie surpassed the 20-goal mark.
The Bruins also used him as a net-front presence on the power play — including on the top unit at times — where he scored five of his goals (also a career-high). Last season, Ritchie also played a career-high 15:22 per night — on a good Bruins team no less — so he has proven he can handle a noteworthy role on a competitive team.
Turning 26 this December, Ritchie has proven himself to be a legitimate middle-six forward in the league capable of chipping in some offense and some rough stuff. That physicality can teeter over the edge at times, and he’s also prone to some lazy penalties. His 1.16 minor penalties per 60 compared to 0.33 drawn per 60 is one of the worst differentials in the league over the past three seasons. The discipline component can’t be overlooked. He is likely going to add some stress to the lives of the Leafs‘ penalty kill.
How Ritchie slots into this Leafs‘ lineup will be very interesting to monitor. He primarily played an offensive role alongside David Krejci this season and performed pretty well in that role, but when Boston acquired Taylor Hall, Ritchie was bumped down and was actually below water in shot share and goal share alongside Charlie Coyle at 5v5. With Krejci, he was above water in both categories in part because Krejci is really good (I will miss Krejci playing in the league but won’t miss him crushing the Leafs on an annual basis).
Ritchie is more of a complementary forward who knows his role: be physical, go to the net, and create havoc. That presumably makes him a good fit on a John Tavares-led line where he can cash in some offense and won’t face top defensive matchups, with the Leafs presumably creating a David Kampf-centered checking line and an Auston Matthews-led line that will certainly play some tough matchups.
Alec and I spitballing on this last night. I like the depth and versatility. They have a bunch of fun and different options they can play around with now. https://t.co/uMGQLVrziZ
— Anthony Petrielli (@APetrielli) July 31, 2021
If the Michael Bunting and Ondrej Kase signings were swings on upside, Ritchie is a good “floor bet.” He almost certainly should be able to contribute double-digit goals and stick on the team throughout the season. He’s a nice hedge on the other two forward additions, who are a bit more boom-or-bust.
If all these bets start panning out, the Leafs will have a number of fun and interesting combinations they can try out instead of their situation last season: essentially locked into a roster of Matthews – Mitch Marner, Tavares – Nylander, a bunch of guys, and Jason Spezza.
You can make a case for Ritchie slotting in just about anywhere, but I’d be wary of playing him in roles where he will need to take on tough competition (absolutely not beside David Kampf).
There has also been a lot of chatter about Nick Robertson’s role in all of this. It is amazing how quickly fans seemed to have forgotten this reality: When prospects are not in the Matthews and Marner categories, an NHL team actually needs to develop them, not rush them along.
Including the Columbus series and his cup of coffee in the NHL, Robertson has played all of 31 games of pro hockey in his life. He is 19 (turning 20 in September). Perhaps he shows up to camp and gives the Leafs absolutely no choice but to keep him in their lineup, but you can’t bank on this — and it would be a terrible plan to assume he’s fully ready.
The almost-certain outcome is that Robertson starts with the Marlies — at least for the first half of the season — and the Leafs reassess the situation after 40 or so games. This is the proper way to develop players and teach them how to be pros. It’s also something Robertson hasn’t even come remotely close to experiencing due to the COVID-19 situation. He should be a nice-to-have and a potential callup later in the season when he is primed and ready to go — not a day-one solution.
The addition of Ritchie also helps hedge the Leafs’ bet on Bunting, who won’t be forced to play anywhere out of necessity. They have a number of options and combinations to play with now, so if he doesn’t gain traction, it won’t be a huge deal at the end of the day.
The truest wildcard is really Kase, though. The injury history is tremendous, but any sort of run of good health from him and the Leafs will be laughing.
Before free agency, I noted the Leafs’ needs on Twitter: prioritizing a goalie, trusting what they already have on defense (namely, three young defensemen ready to go in Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren), and needing to bring in forwards who are able to contribute with some versatility — i.e. not the Jimmy Veseys of the world.
The Leafs’ additions this offseason are good bets — much better than last year’s (Vesey, Travis Boyd, and Alexander Barabanov, who I will remind everyone actually played on opening night!). Ritchie and Kampf are legitimate, proven, everyday NHLers. Bunting has flashed promise, and there’s every reason to think he can play in the league. If not, he’s cheap enough to bury. Kase is simply a good player who can’t stay healthy.
With the cap space at their disposal, the Leafs did well to address goaltending and forward depth, and the best part is they were able to cash in on unqualified restricted free agents. Because of this, they have added four forwards who are either 25 or 26 years of age. They are young and hungry with something to prove.
No more of this Joe Thornton, “go play on the first line and the top power-play unit because you were amazing years ago and are the team dad,” stuff.
Now it’s up to Sheldon Keefe to play the role of a mad scientist and blend this all together. He has shown the ability to do it at times. The Leafs head coach has also shown that when it comes to crunch time, he can throw it all out of the window.
If a few of these new additions hit like they are capable of, the Leafs’ depth won’t be a problem anymore.