The Calgary Flames brought in a few players on professional try-outs during training camp. Perennial Flame Michael Stone was brought back yet again on the back end, while Garret Sparks was brought in to round out the Flames’ groups in goal to cover for Tyler Parsons who is recovering from ankle surgery. On forward, just one player was signed to a PTO: Brett Ritchie.
While he did not earn himself a contract right away, the Flames signed him to a one-year, two-way deal this week. Having cleared waivers, he is eligible to take a spot on the Flames’ taxi squad.
Who is Brett Ritchie?
Ritchie was drafted early in the second round of the 2011 Draft by the Dallas Stars, with scouts raving about his size and skill as a power forward. He played his junior hockey in the OHL with the Sarnia Sting and Niagara IceDogs before moving over to the AHL. Ritchie played a full season and then some with the Texas Stars, registering 69 points and 93 penalty minutes before getting called up to the big club in the 2014-15 season.
Here is where things get interesting. Looking at the data from Micah Blake McCurdy‘s hockeyviz.com, Ritchie had two excellent seasons (2014-15 and 2017-18), one okay season (2016-17), and two very bad seasons (2018-19 and 2019-20). He played just eight games in 2015-16, so let’s leave that season out of the analysis.
Looking deeper, Ritchie has been a decent depth option in the past. When he is playing in a bottom-line role, he has been a positive Corsi player and someone who can help make his linemates perform better. Over his career, Ritchie has only been below a 50% Corsi for player twice: the eight games he played in 2015-16 and in the 2018-19 season.
His high danger chances for, scoring chances for, and expected goals for percentage all follow the same trend, except he was below 50% in each of those categories last season in Boston. While he has never been an elite point producer, with his high mark being 24 points in 71 games during the 2016-17, his underlying numbers have always been good.
Starting with the 2016-17 season, Ritchie’s expected goals for percentage was just above the league average, but he was the driver on his line. This chart shows a breakdown of expected goals for vs expected goals against with (0,0) being dead centre. Ritchie sits in the top right hand corner. When he is on the ice, his line allows fewer chances while still creating a lot. When he is not with his linemates, they create chances, but allow many more. What this tells us is that Ritchie’s influence this season was very strong defensively relative to his linemates, while not hindering their offensive abilities.
The following season, Ritchie’s best by far, was an even bigger step forward. Not only was Ritchie making his linemates better defensively, he was also driving offense. Looking at the black on-ice line, it is clear that having Ritchie on the ice made a huge difference.
While his underlying numbers were good, he was not as effective at putting the puck in the net. He scored just five goals that season, but put 93 shots on net. His expected goals for was 8.56, a significant increase. Looking at the isolated impact chart above, when Ritchie was on the ice, his linemates were able to generate more chances than average from right in front of the net. It appears as though he was the victim of some very bad luck that season.
Unfortunately that bad luck would not turn around, and the following season was the worst season for Ritchie. He was right at the league average in terms of expected goals against, but for the first time was below league average in goals for. His teammates also looked much better than he did. When Ritchie was on the ice, his line did not allow much defensively, but produced next to nothing on offense.
His scoreline reflects this. Ritchie had just three goals and two assists in 53 games, and was clearly on the outs in Dallas as the season wore on. Not offered a qualifying offer by the Stars at the end of the season, he ended up signing with the Boston Bruins.
I wish I could say that things turned up for him, but that was clearly not the case. Ritchie dropped into the bad category, producing very little and having a (barely) below average expected goals against. His teammates were clearly carrying him, and making his defensive numbers look better than they actually were. Given he was playing alongside Charlie Coyle and Jake DeBrusk, this makes a lot of sense.
While he was not producing anything in his stint in Boston, his defensive underlying numbers were just around league average. Ritchie’s numbers last season were actually very similar to Tobias Rieder’s, and the latter was a staple on the Flames’ bottom line. There is nothing to say that Ritchie cannot do the same in Calgary.
What does Ritchie bring the Flames?
Even though he is a right shot right winger, Ritchie is not going to be the magical solution on the right side of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. He is not that type of player. What he will do is give the team an additional depth option from the taxi squad.
In their first game against the Winnipeg Jets, the Flames’ bottom line of Joakim Nordstrom, Milan Lucic, and Sam Bennett posted a horrific 18.18% CF. They were on the ice for two goals against and posted an expected goals for percentage of 2.63% (not a typo). Not only could they not get anything going offensively, they were also a liability all over the ice. Ritchie gives the team defensive soundness, and while he does not give them much offensively, not allowing other teams to run rampant over the bottom line goes a long way.
One of the big concerns with the bottom line for the Flames is the number of penalties that Sam Bennett took last season. Last season Bennett took a team leading 1.42 penalties per 60 minutes of icetime. Ritchie took just 0.68, less than half as many. Ritchie could be a reliable depth option for the Flames, and especially against teams like Toronto and Edmonton who have historically deadly powerplays, playing disciplined players goes a long way.
The key for Ritchie is to utilize him in the right places. Is he a top line guy? Absolutely not. Should he be relied on to shutdown other team’s top lines? Also no. But can he put on a reliable performance in a depth role against weaker opposition and not be a liability? Yes that’s exactly what he can do.
Ritchie is a bit of a gamble, but it is a small gamble to make. Should the team lose a few players to injury, Ritchie could be a good replacement-level player to slot in to the bottom of the lineup. While he does not pack a punch offensively, he is reliable defensively, and adds a lot of grit and tenacity. And even if he is not called upon often to play, he allows the Flames to keep their young stars in Stockton to play meaningful games and improve for next year. For the price that he is paid and the reliable defensive play that he brings, signing Ritchie was a smart move by the Flames.
Photo Credits: Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald