By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Is Nick Ritchie a definitively better player than Danton Heinen?
Trading zip codes in a one-for-one swap between the Ducks and Bruins on deadline day, Ritchie arrives to Boston with eight goals and 19 points (14 points at five-on-five) in 41 games this season, while Heinen departs with seven goals and 22 points (16 of which came at five-on-five) in 58 games. These relatively similar numbers go beyond 2019-20, too, as Ritchie’s scored 43 goals and 109 points in 287 career games since being selected with the No. 10 overall pick in 2014, while Heinen has a line featuring 34 goals and 103 points in 220 contests as the 2014 draft’s 116th overall selection.
That’s probably not the point difference you’d suspect with 106 picks of separation between the two.
In other words, we don’t know yet, and there’s a good chance we won’t know for at least a couple more seasons. (Acting like this is an open-and-shut case measuring worths on the same day as the trade while also existing in the same universe as Reilly Smith, Brett Connolly, and Frank Vatrano seems like an exercise in recreational insanity.)
But what you do know about the Black and Gold’s move for the 24-year-old Ritchie is that it’s really centered around two things: a bigger body and a more palatable cost (both now and down the line) for the comparable production.
At 6-foot-2, Ritchie arrives to the Bruins with the idea of replacing some of the ‘jam’ lost (or never delivered) with the departure of David Backes to the Ducks last Friday and Brett Ritchie’s waive down to Providence last month. (Nick, in case you’re wondering, is indeed the younger brother of Brett.) Now, don’t look at Ritchie assuming he’s an absolute brute worthy of a YouTube highlight video by the year’s end, as he hasn’t dropped the mitts since fighting Luke Witkowski in Mar. 2018.
But he’s absolutely capable of providing a little board-rattling pop with his frame, with 79 hits in 41 contests this season, and multiple seasons of at least 200 on-ice collisions. Rate out his 79-in-41 this season and Ritchie has averaged 9.35 hits per 60 minutes of five-on-five play this year. That’s the 44th-most among a list of 319 forwards with at least 500 minutes of on-ice action, and it goes without saying that Ritchie completely blows Heinen out of the water in this area of the game.
The Tampa Bay bottom six — a grouping featuring Cedric Paquette, Pat Maroon, and now Barclay Goodrow — speaks to the value of such nastiness over the course of a seven-game series in round two. And a potential meeting with Washington in round three should they get there. And in a potential Stanley Cup rematch with the Blues should the stars align. Hell, it has value should the Bruins draw the grind-you-down Islanders in the first round. Or against anybody.
So yes, Ritchie should help address a need/narrative that’s followed the B’s since the Blues won the Stanley Cup.
On the flip side of the perks of Ritchie’s physicality, penalties have been an issue in 2019-20, with 19 minors this season (the 27th-most in hockey) to go with four misconducts. Some of the misconducts have been the result of some straight-up hot-headed plays from Ritchie, including a brutal cross-check on Viktor Arvidsson and a parade of cross-checks with Tampa.
Like any big body with a mean streak, those checks come with their own set of minuses.
But it’s a move that was about more than height advantages and throwing your weight around.
“It was an area that we felt we needed to address,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “From some interior ice play, size and strength, net-front play, contested puck battles… things that we feel Nick will bring to the table for us.”
To Sweeney’s point, Ritchie has certainly generated some worthwhile offense with his usage this season, sitting with an individual expected goals per 60 of 0.87, which is tied for the 27th best mark in the NHL among that group of 319 forwards. He’s actually tied with the B’s superstar David Pastrnak and Carolina breakout star Andrei Svechnikov with that number. Converting those chances at a Pastrnak or Svechnikov rate, however, is an obviously different story. But it’s clear that an on-his-game Ritchie will give the Black and Gold a legitimate threat in front of the net and in the high-danger areas.
“That’s what I’ve been doing and why I’m playing well,” Ritchie, who arrives to Boston with three goals and seven points in his last eight games, offered. “That’s what I do: I drive to the net and win puck battles and hopefully can bring in a few wins down and around the net. Hopefully I can help the team here and I’m going to take pride in playing that big game.”
In Boston, it’s clear that Ritchie’s home will be found on either the third or fourth line, or maybe as a fill-in net-front presence on the second line should the Bruins want to give David Krejci that space-clearing big body. But his starter home is most definitely on that third line as the third man with the Charlie Coyle-Anders Bjork combination.
Pairing Coyle, already a puck-possession behemoth, with another bigger body has always been something that’s appeared to be of interest to the Bruins, too. It’s just that it’s often left the Bruins wanting more in terms of its impact on the scoreboard; Backes never found the offensive results despite some strong metrics and shot totals before the Bruins abandoned that plan in 2018-2019, and before it quickly and absolutely failed with Brett Ritchie this season.
For the Bruins, the majority of their line-three offense comes from the one-two with Coyle and Anders Bjork, and that the third guy is going to need to do a lot of the dirty work. Heinen wasn’t a problem on that front in the defensive zone, but was too wiry to get the job done in front of the net in heavy offensive zone battles, and playing on his off-wing never helped when it came to that side’s productivity.
Heinen’s undeniable consistency issues in Boston were not self-correcting, either.
After scoring the game-winning goal in the first game of the season, Heinen went through his first vanishing act of the season, going without points in the next six contests, and firing just six shots on goal over that stretch. He woke up out of that spell with four goals and 11 points over his next 17 games, but then came another vanishing act. And this pattern repeated itself too many times to count. This, of course, paced Heinen for another dip in his overall offensive production. The same Heinen who was just two years removed from being Boston’s most productive rookie since Sergei Samsonov.
Formerly considered Bruce Cassidy’s go-to skater promoted when looking for some extra kick up front, Heinen simply never found his offensive rhythm this season, and had point-less stretches of at least six games on three different occasions. That wasn’t going to fly. And when an internal competition with Heinen, Bjork and Karson Kuhlman began, it didn’t take long for Heinen to completely lose his footing (and his confidence) as the B’s odd man out.
It was just your classic fading out of frame, with Heinen’s iffy production also coming with a nearly three-minute drop in his nightly ice-time from November to February. And if the Bruins were giving off their NHL roster to get this deadline season, it was obvious that the 24-year-old Heinen was going to be the first to go. Perhaps especially so following Saturday’s zero-shot, minus-4 rating and team-low 13:44 of time on ice in an on-empty 9-3 loss to the Canucks.
The final nail in the coffin, however, was the price, as Ritchie is making just $1.498 million through 2021 compared to Heinen’s $2.8 million. Forget all of the Black and Gold’s other future financial endeavors this summer and just think about it this way: if you’re taking long-term gambles on players finding the identity that will make them an NHL fixture — and from a position of organizational strength as a left-shot forward — doing it on the player costing you half as much feels like a win.
At the very worst, the Bruins acquired an on-again, off-again power forward who will generate high-quality looks for himself and his linemates. Even if there will be some horrific penalties sprinkled in between. And all it cost them was a more expensive player who hit his head off his B’s ceiling so hard he couldn’t recover in time to separate himself from the pack.