Who will establish himself as a top-line left winger on this team?
You don’t lose a proven $5.5-million asset with metronome-like consistency over the summer and expect a seamless transition when plugging in a lower-profile forward.
That Nick Ritchie has yet to assert himself as the moneypuck version of Zach Hyman should not come as a massive surprise.
The biggest Maple Leaf was not a priority target leading up to free agency’s curtain-raising the way fast fan favourite Michael Bunting was. Unqualified by the Boston Bruins, Ritchie was sought out by GM Kyle Dubas as part of the “second wave” of UFAs.
To be fair to Ritchie, we’re only four games deep here. And we’re only one game deep into seeing how (if?) Ritchie can complement the dynamic duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — 2020-21’s most dangerous one-two punch outside of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
To a man, the Maple Leafs players and coaches are all saying positive things about the franchise’s most expensive off-season acquisition (two years, $5 million) who doesn’t wear goalie pads.
Soft hands. Hard hits. Goes to the net.
But the deeds — zero points, a total of four shots — have not matched the words. (And the more cost-effective Bunting’s instant impact hasn’t boosted Ritchie’s perception among the fanbase.)
The Orangeville, Ont., native said Tuesday that his game is getting “progressively better,” and it’s possible Ritchie’s absence of production is partly a symptom of an entire team whose offence should be chalked up to small-sample-size bad.
Does anyone really believe the Maple Leafs — an upper-tier possession group — will continue to average just two goals a night?
John Tavares hasn’t scored. Mitch Marner is riding a 12-game goal drought dating back to last spring, his longest 0-fer since December 2018.
The levee could burst as early as Friday, when the San Jose Sharks roll into town tired, playing their third road game in four nights.
“There’s been lots of chances,” Ritchie says, “and they’re going to go soon.”
The season is only a week old, so it makes sense that the Leafs are choosing the carrot over the stick.
Ritchie is studying video and conversing with Matthews and Marner to get a better understanding of the line’s flow, but he’s not wrong when he says the best chemistry teacher is actual game reps.
“He's trying to find his place on the line and how that works,” coach Sheldon Keefe says, patiently. “That's something that takes some time.”
The need for Ritchie to get rolling, however, speaks to a larger issue.
Already dealt a serious blow with Hyman’s departure, Toronto’s left wing was further wounded with Ilya Mikheyev breaking his thumb (out eight weeks) in the pre-season.
Now, top prospect Nick Robertson — a potential offensive callup with two points in two AHL games — has been sidelined 10 weeks with a nondisplaced fracture in his right fibula.
"Firstly, I feel for Nick. It’s tough luck for him. He had a strong-looking camp and was excited to have a good season,” Keefe says.
“It's very unfortunate, and you feel for him. As hard as he works and as committed as he is, it's tough to see that happen. But I also know because of how hard he works, if anybody is going to work their way through that and bounce back, he is.”
So as the injured left-wing options heal up, the onus falls on Ritchie to find his groove.
Ritchie doesn’t need to make the magic; he absolutely needs to complement it.
Remember, the Maple Leafs kicked off last season with Joe Thornton and Jimmy Vesey as their top-six left wings. By the time the games mattered most, one had been waived and the other had nestled into a fourth-line role.
If Ritchie isn’t up for the gig, Dubas and Keefe will look internally and externally to find someone who is.
One-Timers: Ondrej Kase missed practice Tuesday after making a painful shot block Monday. He’s still undergoing assessment and, with a day of rest Wednesday, has not (yet) been ruled out of Friday’s game versus San Jose…. Monitoring Jack Campbell’s workload is paramount with Petr Mrazek (groin) sidelined for two weeks. He only did about 15 minutes of work Tuesday and left early because Keefe was running such an offence-heavy practice. Former Kingston Frontenacs goalie Brendan Bonello, 22, stood in to get pummeled by pucks…. Michael Hutchinson will get a start during this weekend’s back-to-back.