Ritchie was not the only Bruin the team decided to (seemingly) cut ties with on Monday. Ondrej Kase and P-Bruins forward Robert Lantosi (he’s drawn significant interest from overseas) were not extended qualifying offers either, which made goaltender Callum Booth and right winger Zach Senyshyn the only two restricted free agents extended qualifying offers by the deadline. But it was the decision to walk away from Ritchie that’s worth wondering about, especially as it relates to the Black and Gold’s summertime plans with the start of free agency just two days away.
To put it simply, walking away from Ritchie for absolutely nothing is… something.
I’m not here to tell you that Ritchie is this irreplaceable piece or that his departure will dramatically alter the Bruins’ championship hopes in 2022 and beyond. But the straight facts are that he’s 25 years old, he’s coming off a career-high 15 goals in 2021, and he’s under team control. I have a hard time believing the Bruins couldn’t have gotten something for him on the trade market. Especially with the way teams have coveted size in recent seasons (teams that include the Bruins, by the way).
The Bruins could bring Ritchie back, of course. Perhaps they didn’t want to pay the qualifying offer number, and wanted to go out of their way to avoid a potential arbitration hearing where Ritchie’s payday would truly be out of their hands. Or maybe Ritchie has an idea of his value that doesn’t necessarily match what the B’s want to pay, especially with some obvious needs to be addressed between now and Game 1. Namely on the backend. But to let the 6-foot-2, 230-pound wing hit the open market is a dangerous game to play if you’re the Bruins, and would seemingly point to an exit, or increase its odds, at the very least.
Yet, it’s entirely possible — if not likely — that the Bruins are comfortable making that gamble right now given their needs.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has made it known that the team is going to be aggressive in their pursuit of some much-needed defensive help. (It’s also worth noting that this team needed some defensive help before Kevan Miller retired and Jeremy Lauzon found himself packing for Seattle as the first pick made by the Kraken.)
“The market is tight [and] the supply is what it is,” Sweeney said last week, and that was before some other names flew off the board. “We’ll have to be aggressive to find a player or maybe two that want to play for us and what we want.”
And, again, it hasn’t gotten any easier for the B’s search. The Bruins are reportedly out on Ryan Suter, according to The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa, and free agency headliner Alec Martinez is expected to stay in Vegas. The Kraken drafted and signed Jamie Oleksiak, and though the Bruins remain in ‘constant communication’ with Mike Reilly, that’s probably not who the Bruins considered their top prize after coming up short in last year’s second-round series with with Reilly in action.
“Ideally, you’d want an all-situational minutes player, that certainly has been all of those pressure points and, as you mentioned, the penalty kill,” Sweeney said of his desire for the defensive addition to the roster. “Not unlike Charlie McAvoy, who impacts the game in sixty minutes. The other guys — [Matt Grzelcyk] obviously has done a lot of great things for us in puck moving and can complement on the power play as well. [Jakub] Zboril was moving pucks last year, ran into some injuries. But with the loss of Jeremy [Lauzon], there’s a penalty killing component there. Johnny Moore helped, we’ll obviously address some of that from a depth perspective. But we have to go and add to our group, so we have to address that.”
With that potential guy seemingly off the board, perhaps the Bruins are realizing that Ritchie’s millions are best utilized to help them fill that role by committee (read as: multiple signings versus the do-it-all guy that may not exist in this market).
The Bruins are also entering the free agent market in search of a veteran goaltender to support Jeremy Swayman and Daniel Vladar to begin the year. That won’t break the bank (the Bruins are realistically looking for a veteran who’s good enough to play in the NHL but won’t be deemed untouchable for future roster maneuvering), but you’re going to need to set aside some money for that and a Tuukka Rask re-signing if and when the 34-year-old rejoins the team in the middle of the 2021-22 season.
Again, this may be the Bruins simply reprioritizing their $20 million in cap space and making a tough call along the way.
But passing on Ritchie (and maybe Kase as well) could also have an impact on the Black and Gold’s forward grouping.
With Taylor Hall and Trent Frederic locked up, and with Brad Marchand still at the top of the B’s left wing depth chart, you were really talking about Jake DeBrusk and Ritchie battling for one spot. Of course, the Bruins could always move DeBrusk to the right wing, but I feel like they’ve gone to that well enough times to realize that it simply doesn’t work anymore. The Bruins also have to know that DeBrusk, even for all his obvious struggles in 2021, remains one of their best trade chips. Eliminating Ritchie from the equation almost guarantees one of two things: either DeBrusk is staying in Boston and will be the team’s third-line left wing to begin the season or the Bruins have bigger plans for that position and how DeBrusk will be leveraged.
As I wrote last week, I understand the frustration with DeBrusk’s 2021. It wasn’t a good one. But the 24-year-old is still just a couple of years removed from almost scoring 30 goals and is being judged harshly on a year that he outright admitted he struggled with handling away from the rink. And perhaps the Bruins are hoping that moving him back to his natural position and essentially saying, “This is your spot. Run with it” will work wonders for him. At the same time, I would also contend that this would have to be his last shot, as the Bruins aren’t going to move mountains to accommodate him only to see his value and production tank downwards for the third straight season. I mean, let’s be real: moving Ritchie to allow DeBrusk to have a fresh start and rebuild his game would be betting on DeBrusk’s upside over Ritchie’s results, at least if we go off 2021 alone.
But let’s say Boston can’t get that defenseman (or those defensemen) on the free agent market. Do they then try to build a trade package around DeBrusk and for that defensive help? Out West, it’s expected that the Canucks are going to shop Nate Schmidt now that Oliver Ekman-Larsson is in town, and the Bruins have been linked to the Flames’ Noah Hanifin in the past. And if they do that, do they then go all-in and decide to be the team to throw $30 million at Blake Coleman, a player they were linked to before he was traded to the Lightning in 2020 (and won two Cups as a pivotal middle-six wing for the team), in free agency?
There’s about a billion trickle-down effect situations involving this new configuration. But one thing that seems certain with all of them and the B’s decision to (potentially) move on from Ritchie: they’re thinking bigger than what Ritchie provided in 2021.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.