TORONTO – The bad news is that Kyle Dubas swung and missed on this one.
The good news is that the general manager’s Toronto Maple Leafs will accrue some much-needed salary cap space and are being run as a meritocracy.
Let’s be frank.
The clearest sign that the well-intentioned and persistent Nick Ritchie experiment was nearing its tipping point arrived Saturday.
When, for the very first time all season, head coach Sheldon Keefe was granted a full complement of healthy forwards, he scanned his options and decided Ritchie was the unlucky 13th man.
Yet even in delivering the heaviest Maple Leaf his first healthy scratch, Keefe was conscious to couch the demotion in encouragement. The coach went out of his way to describe how Ritchie had “worked his ass off” during the morning skate.
But when Ritchie drew back into the lineup Wednesday versus Edmonton (for the injured Ondrej Kase), he responded in a way that would make any bench cringe.
After the Maple Leafs jumped to a 1-0 lead, the fourth-liner was caught out of position and displayed minimal effort to backcheck his man, Brendan Perlini, who tied the game on a preventable 2-on-1.
“We got the lead and we had quite a bit of an edge in shots and territory and things like that. And I found we got a little sloppy with our structure defensively, and that just opened things up for them,” said Keefe, who has been extra careful to never criticize Ritchie in public. “We gave them life.”
perlini ties it at 1. pic.twitter.com/SkeDTaz1fh
— zach laing (@zjlaing) January 6, 2022
Actions ring louder than words, however, and Toronto placed Ritchie on waivers the next day. He went unclaimed Friday.
Every swing cannot be a smash.
There’s a reason the 2014 10th-overall pick is already on his third team, that the Boston Bruins left him unqualified as a RFA in the summer.
Keefe gave the franchise’s most expensive off-season acquisition (two years, $5 million) who doesn’t wear goalie pads every opportunity to thrive.
Ritchie was presented with two prolonged trials on Auston Matthews’ top line and handed coveted power-play minutes. He simply did not produce.
Keefe wrote a mantra for the Leafs to live by this season: Raise the standard.
Ritchie’s much-rejoiced one goal ranks worst among all Toronto forwards. He’s a club-worst minus-5 on team with a plus-30 goal differential.
“It's just finding greater consistency and finding ways to impact the game, whether that’s scoring, whether that's using his physicality and disrupting the game that way. That's really what you're looking for. That's really been the gist of all the conversations I've had with Nick,” Keefe said Friday.
“But it’s as much a reflection of where we're at with the salary cap and things rather than a reflection of how we feel about Nick.”
“Other guys have outplayed him,” Keefe said.
In order to make the roster compliant, Dubas could’ve sent down a young waivers-exempt defenceman like Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren — but that would’ve sent the wrong message.
Raise the standard.
With Ritchie’s contract less appetizing than, say, Jimmy Vesey or Travis Boyd’s were last season, the winger can rejoin the Maple Leafs (he practised with the team Friday), be assigned to the taxi squad or be assigned to the AHL Marlies.
If he’s sent to the farm, Toronto can free $1.125 million in cap space, which Dubas can let accrue leading up to the March 21 trade deadline. He’ll be a buyer.
Despite his underwhelming impact to this point, there is still a chance for Ritchie to gather his mojo and sharpen his game.
COVID protocol already claimed Mitch Marner and Engvall on Friday, and injuries are inevitable. The playoffs are a grind.
So even though the well-liked Ritchie was waived, it certainly feels like his days as a Maple Leaf are not over.
“It just hasn't worked out the way that anybody had seen to this point. And a lot of other people have stepped up and have really performed very well,” Keefe said.
“We have Nick, and we also have some added flexibility on our roster — and that helps us. We’ll just continue to work with him.”
One-Timers: Marner tested positive Thursday, and both he and Engvall have minor symptoms…. Marlies forwards Joey Anderson and Brett Seney were assigned to the taxi squad…. Kase (day to day, undisclosed) skated on his own Friday. He’ll travel with the Leafs but will not play Saturday in Colorado…. Jack Campbell (17-5-2) starts versus the Avalanche.