On April 4, 2014, the Texas Stars honored the career of Mike Modano. Apparently dissatisfied with the team’s formal arrangements (that bit is a joke, the celebration was lovely), then-prospect Brett Ritchie decided to throw a little tribute of his own. The big kid rang up 4 goals and an assist in a 5-1 laugher against the then-Lake Eerie Monsters, and as someone lucky enough to see it live, he was probably better, even, than the stats indicate.
In the three years since, Ritchie has become a regular at the NHL level, but despite teasing 20 goals last season, the 6’4”, 217 lb forward hasn’t quite put it all together in Dallas. Five games into the new season, Ritchie isn’t exactly flailing, but he’s not standing out either. It’s hard, so far, to get a handle on exactly what the Stars have in their burly winger.
In terms of basic production, the Dallas Stars are still waiting on Ritchie to arrive this season. Through five games, the 24-year old winger has a single assist to his credit, and no goals. This is after taking a modest step forward last season, when Ritchie managed 16 goals, 8 assists, and 24 points in 78 games. Pick a counting stat, and he’s fallen off somewhat versus last year’s pace.
A very likely culprit is a dearth of shots. If you don’t weigh in, you can’t wrestle, and despite the Stars sitting fifth in the league with an average of 37.2 shots per game, Ritchie has managed just five for himself. He’s been blanked twice (Vegas and Colorado), managed a single shot once (Nashville), and two shots twice (St. Louis and Detroit). Tyler Seguin (36) and Jamie Benn (18) are unfair comparisons, but what about Jason Spezza (12 S / 13:22 ATOI)?
Last season, Ritchie shot the puck 167 times in 78 games, good for an average of 2.14 per game. It’s not like Ritchie is pounding rubber into shinguards either. He’s missed the net just three times so far. It’s also hard to blame luck. Ritchie’s PDO is 99.7. The shots simply aren’t there.
So maybe it’s the addition of several high-end forwards to the lineup. As excited as fans are about the arrivals of Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal, as well as the return to health by Mattias Janmark, there are only so many key minutes to go around. Ritchie is seeing about a minute less each game (11:51 ATOI this season versus 12:53 last season). That might seem like a small drop, but NHL players cram two or three shifts into a single minute. Losing that time, those shifts, could be screwing up Ritchie’s rhythm in the early season. Beware the groove.
Trouble is, despite that drop things have actually been fairly rosey for Ritchie so far. For starters, he remains a fixture on the Stars’ second power play unit. He’s currently averaging 1:42 with the man advantage, which is a slight increase from last season (1:34). Ritchie has also seen a tremendous change in where he’s deployed. Last season, just 40.7% of his shifts began in the offensive zone. This season, that number has surged to 70%.
Furthermore, the power forward isn’t exactly lining up with hacks. Almost half of his shifts (46.6% to be exact) have come with Janmark and Spezza while a third have come with Remi Elie and Spezza. Those aren’t close-up-the-shop lines. Yes, he’s on the ice less, but it’s hard to make a case he’s not getting opportunities to produce.
Let’s be clear, Brett Ritchie is not playing badly. His 60.8% CF (even strength) speaks to a player undoubtedly driving possession in a good way. The physicality is there (13 hits), and though it’s a wildly unreliable metric, he’s yet to be charged with a giveaway. He looks like the big, aggressive player Stars fans were hoping to see. It’s also early, like, meaningless sample size early. One or two big games will put him right back into line with career norms. It’s just that fans were hoping for maybe a little bit more out of the gate. Maybe that’s unfair, but welcome to the 2017-2018 Dallas Stars!