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Neutral Zone: A fresh start for Nick Ritchie

Craig Morgan Avatar
February 26, 2022

Peterborough GM Mike Oke was on the edge of his seat in the Kingston press box. His team was in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons and the Petes had rallied from a 3-0 first-round series deficit to force this seventh and deciding game back in the higher seed’s barn. 

The game went to overtime, tied 1-1, and there was a faceoff in the Kingston end. Just before the draw, Oke noticed that Petes forward Nick Ritchie was looking up at him and goalie coach Andrew Verner.

“He made eye contact with us,” Oke said. “And then, right off the faceoff, Nick got the puck and scored and we came back from three down to win Game 7 on the road, which was a pretty significant feat at any level. 

“We hadn’t made eye contact the whole game and I don’t know if he was looking for us or if it came just by happenstance but it stuck with me because shortly thereafter, he ended the series.”

Ritchie’s fifth goal of the playoffs capped a remarkable season in which he had 39 goals, 74 points and 136 penalty minutes in 61 games. Nearly three months later, the Anaheim Ducks made him the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia. He played one more season in the OHL and half a season in the AHL before becoming a mainstay in the Ducks lineup in the 2015-16 season.

Those were the high points. Ritchie even liked his game in Boston last season when he had 15 goals in 56 games for the Bruins, but the Bruins left him unqualified as an RFA, leading to the low point of his career this season in Toronto. The Maple Leafs signed Ritchie to a two-year year contract with an average annual value of $2.5 million in hopes that he could replace departed forward Zach Hyman (Edmonton) on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

Ritchie managed two goals and nine points in 33 games, he was replaced coincidentally by former Coyote Michael Bunting, he was waived, he cleared waivers and he spent the past month with the AHL’s Marlies before the Coyotes acquired him in the Ilya Lyubushkin trade

“I don’t think there’s one particular reason it got to this point,” Ritchie said on Friday morning before he made his Arizona Coyotes debut against the Vegas Golden Knights. “Part of that is obviously on me but there are other things as well. I’m just going to put that behind me and focus here now.”

Ritchie played on a line with center Barrett Hayton and wing Loui Eriksson on Friday. He logged 11:14 of ice time, had two shots on goal and four hits.

“He was solid for us,” coach André Tourigny said. “He played a really heavy game, finished his checks, he made good plays with the puck. He had good poise in his game. I’m really happy with what he brought.”

All the same, Tourigny and GM Bill Armstrong emphasized that Ritchie’s role with the Coyotes will be a work in progress.

“We’re gonna put him in a good situation,” GM Bill Armstrong said. “He’s got to dig in and just be a consistent hard player to play against every single night. If he does that, good things will happen for him.”

Armstrong believes Ritchie can help the Coyotes with his size, his net-front presence, his hands and his willingness to mix it up. The main haul from the trade was the 2025 second-round pick that the Coyotes acquired, but the best case scenario for this relationship is that Ritchie will rediscover his game and then the Coyotes will either flip him at next year’s deadline for assets, or decide that he is worth keeping around.

“He did not play for a while, he did not practice for a while, he’s with us and we’ve barely practiced and now he’s jumping in the game, so what is the expectation? We don’t have any yet,” Tourigny said before Friday’s game. “I know he’s a good player. I know he’s an NHL player, but I don’t want to put any expectations on him. 

“We’ll let him get his feet wet, get his legs under himself, he will play and we’ll work with him. We’ll teach him how we want to play and in 21 days, we will know what we’ve got. That’s when more judgment and more reading of each other will come.”

It would be understandable if Ritchie is lacking in confidence after switching teams three times in the past two years.

“This particular situation was probably as low as it’s gotten in my career,” he said. “But now I get a chance to rewrite it and help Arizona so I’m excited for that opportunity.”

Tourigny is well known for his ability to build bonds with players, but that process will take time, he said.

“I need to earn his trust; I need to create a relationship and he needs to understand where I’m coming from and what I’m expecting from him,” Tourigny said. “Later on, if the situation is right, we can talk about what he went through and he can tell me what he wants.

“Unless he tells me he wants to talk about it, it’s none of my business, but I think you must go through adversity. That’s part of your evolution. That’s good for him. That’s part of becoming the best version of yourself so you need to embrace the struggle.”

Vegas Golden Knights center Jack Eichel was one draft pick away from being an Arizona Coyote. (USA TODAY Sports)

A tale of two franchises

Not much has gone wrong for the Vegas Golden Knights since their birth in 2017. While Vegas has not won a Stanley Cup, the Golden Knights have won two division titles, they advanced to the Cup Final in their first season and they have been to the NHL’s final four three times in four seasons. 

The city has embraced them, owner Bill Foley is accessible to media, he engages with fans and he regularly spends to the cap to push his team to a title.

Analysts will tell you that the one thing holding Vegas back in previous seasons was a lack of elite play at the center position, keeping the Golden Knights from overcoming the top teams of the NHL. But when disgruntled Buffalo center Jack Eichel became available, the Golden Knights’ acquired him in a blockbuster deal in November.

Eichel played his fourth game for Vegas in Arizona on Friday. He already had a goal and three points in three previous games and his transition from disc replacement surgery to No. 1 center has been shockingly seamless. 

Juxtapose that with where the desert’s other NHL franchise sits in Year 1 of its latest rebuild and it almost seems unfair. Arizona has been searching for a No.1 center ever since Jeremy Roenick left town in 2001, and it hasn’t come close to finding one. 

The Coyotes traded Daniel Briere in 2003 and he instantly blossomed into an NHL superstar and No.1 center, scoring 116 goals and recording 290 points in 290 games over his next four seasons. 

The Coyotes thought they had drafted a No. 1 center with 2007 third overall pick Kyle Turris but he never panned out. They lost the 2015 draft lottery to Edmonton (Connor McDavid) and ended up picking third overall. Instead of getting Eichel as their consolation prize, they dropped to the No. 3 pick in the draft and got Dylan Strome, who is on his second team and isn’t close to becoming a top center.

The Coyotes even tried extracting top-center play out of aging veterans Chris Gratton, Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Stepan, but none of them was capable of that level of performance any more.

And so the Coyotes are hoping to win the lottery once again over the next two seasons when Shane Wright and Conor Bedard will be available. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights are still eyeing the Stanley Cup with a 25-year-old No. 1 center who will be a mainstay for the franchise for a long time to come.

Just how important is it to have that talent level at the top of your lineup? Here’s a look at the past 10 Cup champs and their top centers.

2021: Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point
2020: Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point
2019: St. Louis: Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn
2018: Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Niklas Backström
2017: Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin
2016: Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin
2015: Chicago: Jonathan Toews, Brad Richards
2014: Los Angeles: Anže Kopitar, Jeff Carter
2013: Chicago: Jonathan Toews
2012: Los Angeles: Anže Kopitar, Mike Richards
2011: Boston: David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin
2010: Chicago: Jonathan Toews, Dave Bolland

Here’s a look at the Coyotes’ top centers since Roenick left town in 2001. 

2001-02: Daymond Lankow/Daniel Briere
2002-03: Daymond Lankow/Daniel Briere
2003-04: Daymond Lankow/Chris Gratton
2004-05: Lockout year
2005-06: Mike Comrie/Steven Reinprecht
2006-07: Yanic Perreault/Steven Reinprecht
2007-08: Peter Mueller/Steven Reinprecht
2008-09: Olli Jokinen/Steven Reinprecht/Martin Hanzal
2009-10: Matthew Lombardi/Martin Hanzal
2010-11: Eric Belanger/Martin Hanzal
2011-12: Martin Hanzal/Daymond Langkow
2012-13: Martin Hanzal/Antoine Vermette
2013-14: Mike Ribeiro/Antoine Vermette/Martin Hanzal
2014-15: Antoine Vermette/Martin Hanzal
2015-16: Martin Hanzal/Antoine Vermette
2016-17: Martin Hanzal/Christian Dvorak
2017-18: Derek Stepan/Christian Dvorak
*2018-19: Derek Stepan/Brad Richardson
2019-20: Derek Stepan/Christian Dvorak/Nick Schmaltz
2020-21: Christian Dvorak/Nick Schmaltz
2021-22: Travis Boyd/Johan Larsson/Barrett Hayton

* – Christian Dvorak missed 62 games due to an injury

Arizona Coyotes defenseman Dysin Mayo spent five full seasons in the AHL before earning an NHL roster spot this season. (Getty Images)

Mayo’s extension

The Coyotes signed rookie defenseman Dysin Mayo to a three-year extension on Friday. Mayo has been a steady defensive presence in his first season with the Coyotes. He is third on the team and second among NHL rookies in average ice time at 20:45. He leads the team and is second among NHL rookies in blocked shots (85), and he is fifth on the team and 13th among NHL rookies with 65 hits.

“Coming into this season I just wanted to try to get that one NHL game to see if I belonged or not and now I’ve got a three-year contract so it’s an unreal feeling and something that I’m very proud; I worked hard for it,” Mayo, 25, said.

“After I had those first couple games when I started playing more minutes, I realized that I could play. There’s been a pretty deep D-corps here in the past, hard to get in. I didn’t let that get me down. I just kept trying to grow my game day to day in Tucson and had lots of encouraging coaches down there.”

Mayo was scheduled to become a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer. Combined with the emergence of 2021 draft pick J.J. Moser, the Coyotes have a pair of defensemen who can figure into their long-term plans.

“I’m not sure who’s the most happy, him or me,” coach André Tourigny said of Mayo. “We’re probably even on that one. Mayo is the perfect coach’s player.

“You talk with our strength and conditioning coach and when we talk about Mayo, ‘What does Mayo have to do better?’ Well, he has to work less. He works to too hard. He wears down himself. That’s a great problem to have. The guy takes care of himself like that off the ice and he’s super focused on what he needs to do every day.”

Tourigny said he knew in training camp that Mayo was ready for an NHL role, even though they sent him back to Tucson. When Vladislav Provolnev didn’t work out, Mayo had a chance. When Conor Timmins was lost for the season, there were more minutes to eat.

Mayo got his first opportunity on Oct. 21 and scored the Coyotes’ lone goal in a loss to Edmonton.

“He played really well,” Tourigny said. “Then you say ‘We’ll give him another chance’ and a little bit later, the rest will be history.”

Arizona Coyotes forward prospect Matias Maccelli is on pace to set the Roadrunners’ all-time single-season records for assists and points. (Photo courtesy of Tucson Roadrunners)

Maccelli chasing history

I wrote about Tucson Roadrunners forward Matias Maccelli in my first prospect report in December. Since then, the Finnish forward has picked up his pace even more.

Entering Friday’s games, Maccelli was third in the AHL in assists (39) and points (52). It is unclear where he will play next season, given GM Bill Armstrong’s stated philosophy of over-baking prospects in the minors and not wanting to put them in bad situations, which next season might be at the NHL level.

Regardless of that decision, Maccelli is chasing history in Tucson. Maccelli already has the highest points per game average in Roadrunners history at 1.3. He is also on pace to record the most assists and most points in a season in Roadrunners history. With two more points, he will pass Dylan Strome for the second-highest point total in Tucson history. 

Here’s where things stood as of Saturday morning.

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