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Why Brett Ritchie Is Getting Another Chance in the Top Six

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Ritchie’s time with Dallas has seen some real highs and lows, but the Stars are banking on the highs returning soon

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Ritchie has missed some time lately. The official word is that it was an “upper-body infection that caused inflammation,” which could be everything from a bad cold to a flu or something else that we’ll never know, because NHL teams don’t violate HIPAA very often these days. Either way, Ritchie missed four games before returning against Columbus, and now we’re receiving word that, in Devin Shore’s stead, Ritchie will be getting some scoring-line time alongside Jason Spezza:

Now, at first blush, this move doesn’t make a lot of sense. Of all the forwards on the Stars’ roster, Ritchie’s scoring ranks, uh, not very high:

Yes, you can have fun with that. Ritchie is neck-and-neck with Roman Polák and Ben Bishop in the scoring race, Ben Gleason and Dillon Heatherington, etc. Ritchie isn’t exactly racking up the apples and biscuits.

Ritchie’s had a tough go of it on the scoresheet, and his recent illness only compounded his struggles. Through 12 games played, Ritchie’s one (1) point is a secondary assist on Roman Polák’s goal (you know the one). The assist is so far back in the play that you can’t even see it in the highlight, but it was a cycle-ish dump down behind the net to Jason Dickinson, who eventually dropped it off for Polák, and the rest is history. The point is, this wasn’t exactly a tic-tac-toe passing play. This was Ritchie, rimming the puck along the boards, for his only point of the year.

That’s in line with his play, too. Ritchie isn’t shooting the puck much; he has only eight shots on goal all year, and that’s with six of those shots coming in the two games against Anaheim and Ottawa in mid-October. Of 12 games, Ritchie has spent eight of them without getting a puck even on the net, let alone into it.

In a weird way, this makes Ritchie a perfect replacement for Devin Shore. That’s because Shore and Ritchie both have the same minimalist approach when it comes to shooting, as both players are averaging just 1.67 shot attempts per game. The difference, of course, is that Shore has scored five goals and tallied six assists. All things being equal, this means that Shore will probably slow down, and that Ritchie will eventually get some more points.

Sadly, there’s just no guarantee of all things being equal in this world. Shore already has 11 points in the bank, and Ritchie does not. Other players are riding productive streaks in small samples, like Gemel Smith (5th on the team in points per hour at 5v5) and even Denis Gurianov (1st on the team in Goals per hour, which is less impressive considering the sample size). If Jim Montgomery were looking for the hot hand to fill out the scoring lines, then he’d look just about everywhere except Ritchie.

Montgomery has chosen to give Ritchie another chance, though. In fact, Montgomery went so far as to praise Ritchie, saying he has done “a lot of good things,” and that this assignment is a “reward.” It’s a bit of phrasing that raised some eyebrows given Ritchie’s somewhat Teflon status last year under Ken Hitchcock, despite similar struggles with production on the scoresheet.

In fact, let’s do a comparison just to show how uniquely Ritchie has been treated from a fan’s perspective: Ritchie last year scored 7G, 7A for 14 points, which also happened to be Remi Elie’s production (6G, 8A) in the 2017-18 season—this despite Ritchie’s power play time advantage and additional ~100 games’ experience in the league.

So, Ritchie played with Elie a lot, and both players scored 14 points. Remi Elie is 23, and Ritchie is 24. Elie is a much faster skater. Ritchie is making almost three times Elie’s salary this year, as Elie is still on his ELC, but arbitration-eligible this year.

Out of training camp this year, however, the Stars put Remi Elie on waivers and lost him to a claim from Buffalo. The Stars willingly risked the younger, cheaper, faster, equally productive player, and they lost him for nothing.

Brett Ritchie, meanwhile, has continued to be a staple in the Stars’ lineup, with only the odd scratch here or there over the last couple years outside of injury. Obviously, there is a massive disconnect here between what the numbers say and how the team calculates Ritchie’s value. Elie is a player teams don’t mind losing, while Ritchie is a player that the Stars could have gotten quite a bit for in trade as recently as 2016. Teams like big wingers who can score goals.

(Elie, by the way, is pointless in four games played for Buffalo.)

It’s weird to be here, legitimately wondering why Ritchie is getting more minutes, when he was one of the up-and-comers just a couple years ago. Ritchie scored an impressive total of 16 goals in the lost season of 2016-17, and he did so playing primarily with bottom-six players like Antoine Roussel and Radek Faksa.

Ritchie did score in the past, but he hasn’t lately—hence the fan dissatisfaction with his upcoming promotion.

So, here’s the big question: What is it that keeps Ritchie in the coaches’ good graces while players like Gemel Smith get stuck on fourth lines or even in press boxes?

Courtesy of HockeyViz.com, we have here a representation of Ritchie’s overall impact upon his team:

Ritchie’s defensive impact has been consistently good, and his offensive impact (which is to say, puck possession) has also been consistently positive over the past couple of years. Ritchie is like someone who is reverse-hacking Corsi: he has been mysteriously avoiding points like they’re lined with BPA or something, but he appears to be doing a lot of the things that can lead to them in the long run. They just largely haven’t, for him, in the last 80+ games. If you’re asking for the “what things??” to Montgomery’s “a lot of good things” when describing Ritchie, his overall defensive play and positioning are a good place to start. Ritchie can win puck battles and close down lanes well, and that’s a valuable thing to have in your lineup.

So, that’s great, and maybe the Stars like Ritchie’s game because it does appear to have the ability to keep the puck headed the right direction. But if that’s the main appeal for them, then one also has to reckon with one other major downside of Ritchie’s game, one that can’t be written off to bad luck, posts, or cold streaks: Ritchie takes a lot of penalties.

How many? Well, you can see it up in the graph there: Ritchie averages 72% more penalties taken than your average player. That’s bad. Ritchie leads the Stars in penalties taken per hour, and unlike Alex Radulov (number two on that list), Ritchie hasn’t drawn power plays for his team to offset his time in the box this year. You probably don’t need me to remind you that Ritchie took three penalties against Toronto on November 1st, is what I’m saying.

Let’s not forget, however, that some of those PIMs (in other games) he’s collected have been, over the years, from fighting majors.

Ritchie’s been praised in the past for firing up the bench and getting his teammates going and all that when he drops the gloves. It’s hockey gospel, is praising a teammate for fighting, and Ritchie certainly adheres to his scripture with fervor.

That fight up there is in response to a hit on Connor Carrick just prior, and Jim Montgomery spoke to Ritchie’s “standing up for his teammate” with glowing tones:

“I can’t say enough about what Brett Ritchie did,” Montgomery said. “On the bench, you could feel it. It had everyone talking about it, going to high-five him or congratulate him or thank him. It’s a big part of building a team. What he did, the value of it, you can’t underestimate.”

After last year’s firm commitment to Ritchie by Ken Hitchcock, and with Montgomery’s apparent re-commitment to him thus far, the tension boils down to this: will Ritchie continue to get a lineup spot in place of more productive players? If so, will it hurt the team’s ability to win games?

This is a tricky question. Clearly, the Stars like Ritchie’s size and strength, and they want to have that element “in their game” if they can. But if he doesn’t start scoring at some point, I don’t see how physicality and one good year really help the Stars this year.

Going back and watching Ritchie’s goals from the last couple years, you’ll notice something: a lot of them were from great passing plays that gave him a great look at the net (i.e. tap-ins or plays that just needed a quick release), which is a trend that started from the moment Ritchie came to Texas:

(Or hey, even back in the OHL for Sarnia, if you want to go back really far.)

And in the NHL, that’s been something you’ve seen. Like this play from Curtis McKenzie, or this one from Radek Faksa, or this one from, uh, T.J. Brodie. Ritchie’s shot is heavy, but it’s not one that tends to beat goalies from the scoring areas that Ritchie’s overall game seems to enable the puck to get to (unless the opposing defensemen set him up, that is).

Ritchie can score. He has scored a ton of goals in his career, and he has flashed some of that scoring talent Dallas hoped to see when they drafted him in the 2nd round of the 2011 draft. Ritchie is an NHL-caliber player, absolutely.

The problem for Dallas is that Ritchie’s clear NHL abilities haven’t been bringing the direct results. Not last year, with Remi Elie equivalent scoring, and not this year, with effectively none scoring. The coaches surely trust Ritchie’s abilities insofar as they can lead to goals for other players, but there are only five guys out there who can do the scoring, you know? Ritchie needs to start being one of them, and I have legitimate concerns about whether his skillset can hit 16 goals again on this team. Ritchie knows how to go to scoring areas (as you can see from a few of the highlights I put into this piece), but it’s only when he has time and space that his shot really seems to do damage. Those things aren’t easy to come by these days.

Standing in front of the net to create screens and playing a physical game to Set The Tone are fine when you’re a player with potential who’s looking to reinvigorate himself during a slump, but this league doesn’t have much room for those guys when they stop being able to score in general and start getting more expensive.

Ritchie is getting a chance in the top six right now, I think, because the Stars have to play him somewhere, and because it wouldn’t hurt to juice his numbers a bit if they do end up moving him in a package at some point. You have to score goals to win, and the Stars are thin enough at wing that they can’t afford to just toss another winger to the waiver wire and assume they’ll get better production from the next man up. Mattias Janmark (1G, 1A) and Blake Comeau (1G, 2A) haven’t scored enough either, and even Tyler Pitlick only has one assist in 17 games, albeit with three goals thrown in. You can’t waive all of them, in other words.

Furthermore, with only Denis Gurianov in Texas who might be able to score on the wing in the near future, the Stars probably should do due diligence and shake all the trees a bit harder, asitwere. Ritchie’s lack of production is stark because of his struggles last year, but in another light, he’s just one of a group of underperforming Stars forwards this season.

Fans might view Ritchie with exasperation, but Montgomery wasn’t here last year, and he’s got a bit more rope (though only a bit) to hand Ritchie before relegating him for good. If you call Gurianov back up—and the Stars may well do that before the road trip to New York this weekend—and play him with Ritchie eating fourth-line minutes and not scoring, then you’d better hope that Gurianov scores. Because, if not, then now Ritchie is just taking up space, and you’ve shown the league you have no confidence in him even if his replacement isn’t scoring either, so you’re even more desperate than before. Maybe that matters to other GMs or maybe it doesn’t; it won’t help, though.

One penultimate thing: Ritchie’s two most common linemates last year were Elie and Spezza. This year, it’s been Jason Dickinson and Gemel Smith. So the Dickinson-Spezza-Ritchie line isn’t exactly foreign territory for Ritchie, even if the Spezza/Ritchie duo last year didn’t produce much (though there are extenuating circumstances with Spezza last year, of course). Dickinson is looking better this year, and so is Spezza, for that matter. If you want to Get Him Going, why not put Ritchie with two guys who are finally moving the needle after some struggles last year? It’ll be the Empathy Line if it works, and I’m copyrighting that now. I have already begun a lawsuit against you for saying that out loud to yourself right now.

Here’s one last reminder: Devin Shore was getting a bit more minutes than his scoring seemed to merit at times last year, too. Then he got hot and found a role this season, and he was looking (with an unsustainable shooting percentage) like one of the answers for the Stars’ depth scoring woes before getting hurt. Things can change quickly. Ritchie has been not-scoring at decent levels for over a year now, but if he can at least shore up (sorry) the Spezza line’s defense while Dickinson and Spezza bring the offense, it’s not illogical to think that good things can happen. Brett Ritchie seems to be able to guarantee that much. And sometimes, much more.