How Nick Ritchie complicates Maple Leafs’ ability to shuffle lines

Justin Bourne shares his thoughts on what is going wrong with the Toronto Maple Leafs early in the new season.

Like a lot of fans and media -- and the team itself -- I spent a little time in the wake of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 7-1 shellacking and third straight loss trying to build a better lineup, but I ran into a consistent problem.

I’ll start by clarifying that below I’m operating under the premise that the Leafs core four forwards – Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander – will not suddenly all have turned unproductive. Of course the team’s success hinges on that more than anything else. Marner’s been particularly ineffective this far, which is the most polite way anyone around Leafs nation has phrased that sentiment. The team has to operate like that won’t last though, it’s the only reality-based way of proceeding this season.

So, back to that problem: If you take Nick Ritchie off the top group and put him on a bottom-six line, that line immediately loses any identity, which is a big part of roster building. Coaches are trying to optimize the strengths of their groups, and doing this makes it unclear where you could use the Ritchie-included bottom-six lines. For example, take this line-up I’ve constructed below with Ritchie as the 1LW.

The bottom line there is an easily identifiable defensive group. Maybe not the best one, but it’s clear how you’d use them. You’d put them over the zone for D-zone starts and against good offensive lines, and feel OK about their chances of coming out with a push. That’s all you’d ask of them -- try not to get scored on, let our best guy’s rest, help us neutralize one of our opponent’s better offensive groups for a shift.

Anthony Petrielli over at Maple Leafs Hot Stove put together some lines of his own, and there’s some great ideas in there that are worth kicking about. He advocated for more changes than I would, though I’d be open to his ideas. His conclusions left him with the same fourth line as my group:

Going back to my version of the lines, which I’ll put in here again for quick reference:

What I think Matthews and Nylander could use more than Ritchie, is… well, someone like Zach Hyman. In the absence of actual Hyman, that means someone who can forecheck effectively, and the closest thing they have there among left wingers are Michael Bunting and Pierre Engvall. Given Bunting has been their peppiest, most-effective left winger to date, I think you put him where he’s needed most -- that being with struggling Tavares and Marner -- so that leaves me with Engvall.

Obviously “first line Engvall” is not ideal, but reminder: they’re currently rolling out Ritchie in that spot, and I think there’s a case to be made that Engvall is at least as effective as Ritchie, and quite obviously more dynamic. You at least get the vibe he could break a play open by himself were an opponent to give him an opportunity.

So, with a dearth of quality left wing options, if we wanted to put Engvall with Matthews and Nylander, that would leave Ritchie on the fourth line, which… you just simply can’t do. What would that line be, exactly? Ritchie–David KampfWayne Simmonds is identity-less, there’s no game state where you’d be like “You know what this moment calls for!” and throw them over the boards. Tasking Kampf with being Phillip Danault is a big challenge but doing it with Ritchie and Simmonds as wingers isn’t particularly fair, or smart.

The Leafs’ best bet unfortunately is to not panic over a slow start. At least give Ritchie a dozen or so games to figure out the team’s top players,and hope he finds a way to contribute there. “It gets late early” is accurate, and I know waiting to make a drastic move could hurt them, but a capable Ritchie on a top line just solves too many problems to not give it more run. If we think –--and I do -- that the Leafs stars haven’t been nearly at their best and will get better, you’d expect an improved version of their collective play to elevate Ritchie and hopefully allow him to find his niche before you make things worse throughout your lineup just for the sake of doing something.

If you put him down the lineup, there’s also the problem that his offensive opportunity dries up, and so he never breaks out, and the team starts to look for a way to off-load the player and likely cost themselves assets in the process. Again, the best bet is for Ritchie to figure it out.

You may have notice I didn’t suggest Kerfoot in that top left wing spot, which isn’t totally unreasonable, but it comes back to Ritchie again. Ritchie-Spezza-Kase feels like an offensively focused line that won’t produce much offence, while Kerfoot-Jason Spezza-Ondrej Kase at least feels like it might be able to maintain some offensive zone possession time. And frankly, I’m not sure what Kerfoot would do for a Matthews/Nylander combo -- in theory it would be pass them the puck, I’m just not sure he gets it back well enough to play there and just be OK.

Time and time again Ritchie’s offensive zone touches have shortened zone time for his linemates, which is the literal opposite of what Hyman was doing for them.

So, the team has problems, and wants to make changes. I’ve proposed a couple as you can see, hitching a thriving Nylander with a returning Matthews looking to start lighting it up. Tavares has generously been “OK” so far this season (he leads the team in shots with a big ol’ four per game) despite the lack of scoring, but I’d hope that Bunting could help him see more zone time and possession, and that Marner could find his way with a couple of guys who can play in the blue paint and finish chances.

Ilya Mikheyev will provide an option when he’s back as a left winger you can play up and down the lineup. He’s far from a perfect solution, but he’s at least another option on a team that feels devoid of many.

Until Ritchie sorts his play out, the Leafs are going to be short on a lineup that leaves their coaching staff feeling truly comfortable.

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