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Coyotes forward Nick Ritchie holds his future in his hands

Craig Morgan Avatar
September 28, 2022

When the Toronto Maple Leafs traded forward Nick Ritchie and a 2025 second-round draft pick to the Coyotes in February for forward Ryan Dzingel and defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin, Sportsnet declared the trade “a heist” and proclaimed Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas “a massive winner.”

The Maple Leafs had acquired a shot- and scoring-suppressing defenseman in Lyubushkin, they had acquired a winger with two 20-goal seasons on his résumé, and they had shed the remainder of Ritchie’s two-year, $5-million contract, which carries a salary of $3.3 million this season.

It’s funny how time and hard evidence can alter perception.

Three months after the trade, the Maple Leafs lost in the first round of the playoffs — again — Lybushkin signed a two-year, $5.5-million contract with the Buffalo Sabres in July, and Dzingel signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Carolina Hurricanes for the league minimum of $750,000.

Across the continent, the Coyotes had another second-round pick in the bag, Ritchie scored 10 goals in 24 games with Arizona, and if he can maintain that scoring touch that Anaheim envisioned when the Ducks made him the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, the Coyotes will have another valuable asset with which to play at the March 3 trade deadline.

“That’s all out of my control, I don’t make those decisions, but Nick Ritchie is a player we really like,” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said. “I know that whenever we chat, we never talk like Nick Ritchie doesn’t have a future with us. He’s not the only guy on our team who is in the last year of his contract. Last year, we had other guys like that and they are still with us (Travis Boyd and Liam O’Brien) so there’s a few guys here who can earn a spot for next year and be signed. Is Nick Ritchie one of those? I hope so.”

Ritchie had a decent season with the Boston Bruins in 2020-21, scoring 15 goals and totaling 26 points in 56 games, but he wasn’t able to carry that momentum into his new contract with Toronto last season. Despite being afforded the opportunity to play in the top six (often with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner), and on the second unit of the NHL’s best power play, he had two goals in 33 games.

Dubas tried giving away Ritchie’s contract before waiving him on Jan. 6 and assigning him to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies where he played two games.

“It’s just one of those things in sports where things just don’t go the way you want and then you start thinking too much and the confidence goes and then it snowballs from there and you’re not playing as much and you’re in your head and you’re almost trying too hard,” Ritchie said. “You almost need that reset or some luck to happen to change the outcome and that happened with me getting traded over here. Almost right away, I felt more comfortable and things just came together.”

Nick Ritchie attempts to screen Hurricanes goalie Antti Raanta at Gila River Arena on April 18. (Getty Images)

Ritchie averaged almost two minutes more of ice time with the Coyotes than he did in Toronto, he earned a little more power-play time and he took off, scoring six goals in his first nine games. 

“I just got back to the basics, played with some good guys, found a little chemistry; simplified things and just went out and played hockey,” he said. “If you get in that mind frame, it always helps in a long season.

“I [was] just making hard, strong plays and driving the net and stopping at the net and the puck was there. Sometimes you can whack a few in and I had some luck with pucks just lying there where I capitalized.”

That was the element of Ritchie’s game that Tourigny noticed most.

“When we made the trade, I had a discussion with [GM] Billy [Armstrong] and Billy told me he scores all his goals 10 feet from the net,” Tourigny said. “When you look at him play, he can make plays. He can score from everywhere because he has a heavy shot and he has good flair and all of that, but in reality when you look at where he scores from, it’s always around the net.

“He’s huge and not just that, he’s so strong so when he goes to the net he is really tough to defend against. He exploited that and he had success.”

Ritchie will have a lot of help in the size department after Armstrong’s offseason. The Coyotes added 6-6 Nick Bjugstad, 6-3 Zack Kassian, 6-5 Josh Brown and 6-4 Patrik Nemeth after adding 6-3 Jack McBain late last season. They’ll also get 6-2 Conor Timmins back in the lineup.

“We were talking about that a few days ago, just with the guys looking around,” Ritchie said. “It’s one of the biggest teams I think I have played on and even some of the smaller guys are medium size guys that play a lot bigger. We’re gonna be a tough team to play against. Teams are gonna know it when they play the Coyotes.”

Armstrong has a full season to decide what to do with Ritchie, but the burly power forward has been on his radar for a long time. Armstrong tried to acquire Ritchie the previous summer but lost out to Toronto.

“Nick Ritchie helps us,” the GM said. “He makes us a bigger, stronger, tougher team. He’s shown in the past that he can add secondary scoring. I knew him back from the day when he was a powerhouse playing for the Peterborough Petes and got drafted fairly high in the NHL Draft.

“But we’ve always been a club (at least) right now that has tried to generate assets. We’re not going to hide behind anything. If we can gain more assets, we’re going to do that. That’s been our whole game plan since the time I’ve come in.”

Ritchie isn’t expending much energy on that possibility.

“You just don’t look that far ahead,” he said. “I’m just looking to have a good season with the Coyotes, start off good and see how that goes. The future is the future and you never know what can happen so I’ll just focus on kind of the day-in and day-out and then we’ll see how it plays out.”

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