Brett Ritchie won't be the only Dallas Stars prospect at the World Junior Championships in a few weeks, but it's likely he's almost certain to get the most attention.
Ritchie is tied for the OHL goal scoring lead with 27 tallies in 32 games and has 50 points overall, good for No. 4 in the league. His linemate, No. 8 overall pick Ryan Strome, leads the OHL in overall scoring as it's clear just how much these two feed off of each other. Both Strome and Ritchie are playing on the same line together during the Team Canada camp and while there was speculation that Ritchie might be a third-line player at best at the WJC, it seems that a strong performance in the Red-White game and his great season overall might have changed that thinking.
The 6-4, 218-pound winger stood out significantly in the game thanks to his unrelenting physical play and his noticeably quick release on his shot. Ritchie landed a big hit on defenseman Matt Dumba in a game normally reserved for little contact, had the lone assist on Team White's only goal and was the only player out of five shooters to score in the shootout.
TSN analyst Ray Ferraro was effusive of his praise of Ritchie after the game and said that there's no reason that the big winger won't be on the top two lines in the upcoming tournament.
"I would think so. He was the most noticeable, I think, of all the White team skaters," said Ferraro. "I think he made himself a viable candidate for that top-six spot and I really don't see anyone who will threaten to push him out of that spot."
Mark Masters also had nothing but good things to say about Ritchie and focused on his physicality more than just his goal scoring, an aspect that certainly stood out in a game that seemed populated by players looking for a skills competition instead of an actual hockey game.
"He was great," said head coach Steve Spott. "Of all the players up front, he's probably the guy that really stood out in a lot of different ways. I thought he was physical on the puck, got pucks to the net. Brett played a real strong game. He used his size to his advantage, which was great."
Ritchie had a bit of a rocky start to his junior hockey career and fell to the second round because of inconsistent play on the ice due to a bout with mono and various injuries. He continued to struggle the next season with the Sarnia Sting, scoring just eight goals and 15 points in 23 games, but found new life after a trade to much more talented Niagara IceDogs.
Since the trade, Ritchie has potted 43 goals and has 80 points in 62 games, not including 11 points in 20 postseason games last season. This year the duo of Ritche and Strome have been near-unstoppable and while his numbers are certainly boosted by his nine-goal outburst over one weekend, Ritchie has gone just one game without a goal since Nov. 1 and now has 34 points in his last 16 games.
The trick for Ritchie is to continue to show that this boom in production is not a fluke and that his troubles with inconsistent and streaky play are behind him. There has also been discussion over whether Ritchie is benefiting from a talented linemate the same way Scott Glennie was with Brayden Schenn and that Ritchie's production will suffer without the talented center.
He's doing a good job of separating himself from the pack, however, when he gets away from Niagara, standing out both in the Subway Series against Team Russia and in these Red-White practices and game. Ritchie has received high praise from Bob McKenzie and other Canadian hockey media and he's earning it with strong physical play and an ability to create offense against top competition.
Ritchie certainly stood out at development camp this summer and there's a lot of debate as to just what his ceiling is, as well as what his path to the NHL will look like. He already possesses NHL size, hands and shooting ability yet needs work on playing a bit smarter in big parts of the game and on his skating; Ritchie took some bad penalties in the Subway Series at times.
There have been a lot of questions about comparisons between Ritchie and Jamie Benn, who also experienced a big jump in production before making the leap to the NHL. The trick there is that Benn was mostly leading Kelowna on his own and their styles of play aren't exactly similar; Ritchie isn't as pure a playmaker as Benn and plays a much more physical game.
The thought of the two playing on the same line in 2-3 years, however, has my hockey senses tingling.
We'll get an even better sense of Ritchie's progress during the WJC, when he'll be tested against international competition and the best players from around the world.
You can watch highlights of the intra-squad game here. Ritchie's hit on Dumba comes at 1:31 and his assist comes at around the 3:15 mark; Ritchie makes a dastardly move for a shot and gets the assist when the rebound in pounded into the net.