For a long time, the Dallas Stars had a certain type of forward in mind when making decisions on draft day. Typically, the Stars wanted a big bodied, physical forward that could play with an edge and put goals into the net. The system was flooded with these sorts of players and a number of star forwards have come from that mold, notably Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson and even James Neal.
For a while, the Stars moved away that approach as draft strategies ebbed and flowed with the years. The Stars looked for "gritty" forwards, or ones with high offensive upside but not necessarily all of the tools to put that production to use at higher levels. As a result, the system became void of the sort of home-grown talent the Stars desperately needed and when Joe Nieuwendyk took over as general manager -- the focus shifted once more.
The Stars have looked at both skill and size in the draft and once again have put a high value on the combination of the two. The true "power forward" seems to be a dying breed in the NHL and as such these types of players have become extremely valuable around the league. Finding a player with the perfect combination of size, physicality and offensive ability is not easy but the Stars have certainly made such a task a priority in recent years.
Ritchie possesses a combination of great size and incredible sniping ability and showcased what was easily the best shot of all prospects at development camp this summer. He has an incredibly wicked release and has great accuracy with his shot from anywhere on the ice, but he certainly does the most damage when he's close around the net.
At the time when he was drafted, in the second round of 2011, Ritchie was dealing with a reputation of having a poor work ethic and inconsistent efforts on the ice. That 2010-11 season, however, the forward had been diagnosed with mononucleosis; this ailment could be directly contributed to why it seemed his effort completely fell off the cliff that season.
The 2011-12 season did not start much better, however, as Ritchie had just eight goals and 15 points in 23 games with the Sarnia Sting. He was then traded to the Niagara IceDogs, joining fellow Stars prospect Jamie Oleksiak, and instantly everything changed.
In 30 games with Niagara to end the season, Ritchie had 16 goals and 30 points in 30 games, and was a plus-27 with his new team to finish the season. Adding 11 points in 20 playoff games, it seemed as if Ritchie had turned a corner into becoming what many felt he had the potential to be; a projected top-six scoring winger at the NHL level.
The question was, however, was the hot finish to the season the "real" Ritchie or merely a player on what had become a customary hot streak for the talented winger.
At development camp this summer, Ritchie instantly stood out against the backdrop of Stars prospects. Along with Chiasson, Brenden Dillon, Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth, Ritchie appeared to be a player on the cusp of being ready to take a big jump in their career and development with Ritchie possessing the most alluring potential of the group.
He had the attitude and demeanor on the ice of a seasoned, mature hockey player and no where were there signs of a poor work ethic or attitude. Ritchie had fallen by the wayside a bit in discussions of the top prospects in the system, particularly because he would not be able to play in the AHL until the 2013-14 season.
Nearly two months into the 2012-13 season for Niagara, however, it's become instantly clear that Ritchie is a player that all Dallas Stars fans should be keeping an eye on.
Along with New York Islanders prospect Ryan Strome, Ritchie has formed one of the more dangerous offensive combinations in the AHL. The power forward opened the season with just one goal in this first 12 games but put up big numbers in the assist column, putting up nine points in his first six games and 16 points in 16 games. In the month of November, however, Ritchie has put himself squarely on the map as a top prospect in the OHL.
In three games over the weekend, Ritchie scored 10 goals and had three assists. In less than a 24-hour period, Ritchie scored nine goals in two games and put himself right at the top of OHL scoring leaders with 14 goals and 29 points in just 19 games.
The scoring outburst came with Ritchie using his great shot and positioning on the ice, along with the big play of linemate Strome. Whereas Ritchie might have had bad luck on shooting earlier in the season it seemed that almost nothing could miss over the weekend. Highlights of the game have been removed from YouTube, but most of the goals came off the rush with Ritchie using his great accuracy in combination with skillful puck movement and speed.
It seemed, at times, as if Ritchie and Strome were playing against a pee-wee hockey team.
The big question about this season is whether this is, indeed, the player that Ritchie truly is. He's maintained a high level of play through 19 games but he's yet to prove that level of production can be sustained over a course of a season; whether fair or not, the inconsistency label continues to haunt him until proven otherwise. There's a strong chance that Strome is called up to the NHL when play eventually resumes and what many will be paying attention to is just how much Ritchie's production drops off without his talented linemate.
There's also a chance that Stars fans could get a brief look at Ritchie as well, since he was one of players named as CHL prospects the Stars would call up for training camp for a shortened season.
At the very least, Ritchie has started to show that the big jump in production last season might not be as big a fluke as it first appeared. His combination of size and skill is something that NHL teams highly value and his skill set would certainly be welcome on the Dallas Stars at some point in the future. He compares, in many ways, to Alex Chiasson but at the same time is a much different player; Ritchie is, first and foremost, a goal scoring winger.
If you feel like watching some hockey, you can catch Ritchie tonight on NHL Network playing for Team OHL in the Subway Series. The game is set to start at 6 p.m. CT, and the OHL players will be facing Team Russia in the first of two games.