|photo courtesy of Niagara IceDogs |
After all, he had yet to experience the OHL playoffs in his first two seasons in the league, and coming to Niagara, who recently clinched their first Central Division title since moving from Mississauga in 2007, was a big departure. So it’s fair to say he’s excited about getting his first taste of the postseason.
“Yeah, I was in Sarnia for two years and we didn’t get a chance at the playoffs. So it’ll be a new experience but I think that I’ll adapt well and we have the team to do some damage for sure,” Ritchie said.
A native of Orangeville, Ontario, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound prospect who was a second-round pick (44th overall) of the Dallas Stars in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, is an impressive physical specimen and someone Ice Dogs head coach Marty Williamson was glad to add to his already talented roster.
“Well, he’s been outstanding. He’s been really consistent. His speed and size is dynamic for our team and was the perfect fit,” Williamson said. “We thought it was going to be a real good fit for us and it’s turned out even better than I imagined. He’s a quality kid. He fits in with our team pretty well, but his size and speed has given a whole new dimension to our balance with our forwards. Right from the deadline on, we’ve been a pretty tough team to beat.”
Ritchie agrees that even at 18 he’s already become pretty adept at using his size to give himself a considerable competitive advantage. “I’m a pretty big guy so I’d say winning battles in the corners and outmuscling opponents is my biggest strength at this level right now,” he said.
So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that he tries to pattern his game after such big skill guys in the NHL like Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, the reigning Hart Trophy winner. “Yeah, that’s the style of play I like to mold my game around, right? Those guys are big power forwards and anytime you can pick up something from them, it helps your game a lot,” he said.
During his two and a half seasons with Sarnia, Ritchie had become pretty comfortable, so it’s understandable he didn’t know what to expect after the trade to Niagara. But thus far, he likes how things have gone with the Ice Dogs.
“Since coming over to Niagara, it’s been great. I didn’t know what to expect but knew they had a good team and a great group of guys,” Ritchie said. “We’ve been on a roll lately, so we’re just looking to keep it going into the playoffs.”
In 50 games between the Sting and Ice Dogs, he has posted solid numbers (21-19-40). But his point total only tells half the story about the strides this talented youngster continues to make in the OHL.
“Ritchie battled some injuries right out of training camp. Since he’s changed and gone to Niagara he’s really taken off,” Les Jackson, Stars Director of Player Personnel said. “He’s a big kid that’s got some good hand skills and he’s got a nose for the net. But he’s a kid that’s got a great future.”
With almost three seasons of experience in the OHL under his belt, this solid young forward feels he’s definitely continued his progression since he made his league debut with Sarnia back in 2009-10, when he had 29 points (13-16-29) in 65 games for the Sting.
“I think I’ve gotten a lot faster. I think that’s one of the things coming into the league that I wanted to work on, being more powerful and getting faster,” Ritchie said. “Obviously I’ve gotten stronger and I think I’ve worked on all aspects of the game. I don’t think I’ve focused too much on goal scoring or on playing defense. I think I’ve become a well-rounded player.”
His head coach with Niagara agrees one thing that might distinguish his new addition from other prospects is the fact that he’s already pretty solid on both ends of the ice and also that he sees how much being so well-rounded can benefit his entire game.
“I thought I’d have to harp on him a little more about the defense and he wasn’t scoring at a great pace [when he first got here],” Williamson said. “He had some injuries earlier in the year. I think he came to us with eight goals. He’s got 21 now and he’s playing solid defense. I’ve always believed they go hand in hand. When you have the energy to play defense and do a good job, the offense will be there.”
Ritchie’s arrival has also had a positive effect on two of his older teammates, who have had a little extra spring in their step since the 18-year-old talent came over from Sarnia. “He’s been a great fit with our two overage players. He plays with two of our older players,” Williamson said. “His speed and dynamics have really opened them up too and now there’s a real chemistry between the three of them.”
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that he is still only 18, but two individuals watching him closely agree there is still plenty for this young prospect to work on. “Well, I think with young guys consistency is still a thing for him-shift in, shift out remembering the details,” Williamson said. “His overall game is real solid but he’s got to remember responsibilities on face-offs, just the details. I think with the injuries that he had early I think his conditioning can still get to another level and we’re pushing him hard that way. We need him to be rock solid for that 30, 40-second shift. I’d like to get him a little more consistent and get the conditioning up a little bit. But these aren’t big issues. These are small issues.”
Jackson offered his own take on what Ritchie needs to focus on in order to realize his immense potential. “Well, he just has to mature and physically get stronger. That will come in time but he has a good game now. I think he just has to keep playing and gain from the experiences of playing there,” he said.
So with nearly three seasons of experience in the OHL under his belt, one has to wonder if he’ll return to juniors next season or if he’ll make the jump to the professional ranks? The answer to that question all depends on who is asked.
“I suspect he’ll be back there next year. He’s still a big, young kid that’s got some talent, so we’ll work with him in the summer, get him stronger and do all those things, but he’s in a pretty good place right now.” Jackson said.
Ritchie however isn’t quite so sure he ends up in the OHL for a fourth consecutive season. “It’s up in the air. They [the Stars] haven’t really talked too much specifically about that,” he said. “I’m just going to go into camp each year in Dallas. You have the mentality to try and make the team, right? So it’s up to them, right? That’s my mentality.”
But were he to return to the OHL, it wouldn’t be entirely bad, especially since he’s from Northern Ontario and the fact that his younger brother, Nick, plays for Peterborough, which allows their father to watch plenty of their games.
“My dad played junior and played university,” Ritchie said. “He got us on skates right away and he knew that would probably be something we’d like. He’s a very knowledgeable hockey guy. He coached me when I was little growing up until about pee wee. Then he let me go. He got out of coaching, but even when he wasn’t coaching me like nowadays, he’s always giving me pointers. He knows what he’s talking about. I trust his opinion and he’s helped me a lot throughout the years.”
And he admits the mere possibility of being teammates with Nick for the first time is exciting. “He’s a younger kid. It’s his first year in the league and he’s done well. He plays a similar game to me and he’s loving it so far,” Ritchie said. “No, we never played together. He’s two years younger, so it’s been tough, right? I guess it’s possible in the OHL we could end up on the same team maybe next year the year after. You never know, right? It’d be a cool experience and if we were on the same team, we bring the same type of game. So if we were to play together, I think we’d be pretty dangerous.”
As he nears his one-year anniversary for when he officially joined the Stars’ organization, he reflects on his first year after being drafted by Dallas. “It’s awesome. I went down to Dallas this summer at development camp and it’s a great city,” he said. “I watch all their games on the NHL Network. They’re having a great season and I hope to be part of that in the future.”
Ritchie went through his first Stars development camp last summer with some fellow prospects and it’s an experience he remembers well. “It was great. I didn’t really know what to expect but I learned a lot of things, a lot of skill drills and a lot of stuff with skating and stick handling with the coaches, even stuff with Gary Roberts on nutrition as well,” he said. “So it was a great experience and I took a lot from it.”
Like many who come from Northern Ontario, hockey wasn’t the only sport he played growing up. In fact, during the summer months, he often played another pretty popular sport in the province-box lacrosse, a version of the game that’s played indoors, usually on a covered hockey rink.
“Obviously hockey’s my No. 1 sport, but I lived in Northern Ontario and it’s a lacrosse town. Where I live it’s probably the No. 1 sport in the town, so if you’re going to be a hockey player in Orangeville, you’re likely going to be a lacrosse player as well,” Ritchie said. “So I grew up playing that and so did my brother. That’s how we spent our summers usually.”
As Brett Ritchie
nears the end of his first year in the Stars organization, it’s not hard to see why the club took him in the second round of last summer’s NHL Entry Draft. Still only 18, he already has an impressive blend of size, speed and he also understands the importance of being a two-way player. His current numbers in the OHL are most likely a hint of great things to come as Ritchie figures to be one to watch in the next year or so, whether or not he returns to juniors or makes the jump to the professional ranks.