No need for a program if you’re looking for Nick Ritchie: At six-foot-three and 235 pounds, the only thing on the ice that’s as big as him cleans the ice between periods.
Inevitably the tag of “complete package” is attached to the prospects who are in the running to be the first names called at the NHL draft. Insiders will talk about emerging aspects of the elite draft-eligibles’ games. For example, they’ll note that a top forward must work on his defensive game. Inevitably, they’ll note parenthetically that a prospect will have to get stronger and fill out to move successfully from juniors to the men’s league.
All of this makes Nick Ritchie of the Peterborough Petes one of the most intriguing prospects in the 2014 draft class. He stands as an exception to so many of these rules.
I got an eyeful of Ritchie when the Plymouth Whalers met up with the Petes in Peterborough last week. No need for a program if you’re looking for him: At six-foot-three and 235 pounds, the only thing on the ice that’s as big as Ritchie cleans the ice between periods. The home team rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the first period and won 8-5 in an entertaining tilt. Ritchie was named the game’s first star and his was a compelling case with a pair of goals in the second period. NHL Central Scouting Bureau has designated Ritchie as an A prospect in its preliminary rankings, the category probable first-rounders fall into.
I buttonholed a scout at the game and bounced the CSB’s evaluation off him. He didn’t blink.
"I have him first in North America," the scout said. "I’d have to see more of any European kids, but I wouldn’t have any problem with him as first overall."
Ritchie isn’t into the mold of a first-overall. With a first overall, you’re looking at a franchise centre like Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos. Ritchie is a left winger. O.K., so picking a winger is not wholly unprecedented (see Alex Ovechkin, second-team all-star). Ritchie would be a fit with a bottom feeder with a franchise centre already on hand. This might take, say, Calgary out of the mix but would put Tampa Bay in there.
Yet it’s not really position that sets Ritchie furthest apart from most high-end kids. More to the point, Ritchie has holes. Consider the assessment of a scout who, as noted, would take Ritchie first overall.
"Conditioning is a question. He’s too heavy. His skating would be better if he wasn’t dragging around that amount of weight. And if he was in better shape, he might not be taking shifts off, which he does.
"Health is a question, too. He missed a lot of games last year with a bum shoulder. That’s a concern, especially with the game he plays."
Reading that you might think that Ritchie is a question mark more than an exclamation mark. And if you saw a couple of shifts, you might think he looks similar to his older brother, Brett, a second-round pick of the Dallas Stars in 2011. Brett was a 21-goal scorer in his draft year with a marginal Sarnia team but broke out at age 19 with 41 goals. The scout said they’re not really comparable players.
"Even though he does take shifts off, Nick has a great motor compared to Brett," the scout said. "He’s all-in on every shift. He goes to the net like there’s no one on the ice with him, and he always gets there."
Numbers-wise, Nick will eclipse Brett. Last year Nick had 18 goals in 41 games, and he will have a good shot, health permitting, to score 40. Through four regular-season games he already has five goals. Nick Ritchie scored a couple of pretty goals against the Whalers: a clinical deke in tight and a delicate deflection of a point shot. As a 40-goal scorer who punishes defencemen with bone-crushing hits on the forecheck and cannot be pushed off the puck on the cycle by opponents’ biggest blueliners, the younger Ritchie starts looking a lot more like a top-five player. And as a late-’95 birthday who’ll have three major junior seasons behind him, he’d have a shot of playing for a NHL team straight out of the draft.
Consider the testimony of another witness, an opponent who has faced Ritchie at different levels and different venues over the years. "He’s special, more special than his brother," this current OHL player said, asking his name be withheld. "He’s already Nathan Horton size. That’s (whom) I’d compare him to. He has really good hands and an above-average pro-level shot. Everything about it is amazing -- release, power, accuracy. He’s so solid on his skates. I went at him last year, and he stood me right up and sent me flying into the boards. And when he fights, he manhandles guys. He beat up (Oshawa’s) Justice Dundas, a respected fighter (in the preseason). He’s gonna be one hell of a player."
Game of the week: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs. Kingston Frontenacs, Sunday, Oct. 6
Neither team has lost in regulation this season. With his return from Edmonton, the Greyhounds' Darnell Nurse figures to be the league's best. Two draft-eligible centres will be interesting to watch: the Soo's Jared McCann has five goals in the first three games this year and is fully recovered from the concussion he suffered in the playoffs last spring; and Kingston's Sam Bennett has three goals and three assists through five games.