Maple Leafs’ Ritchie Gets One More Chance after Clifford Trade

The Toronto Maple Leafs are giving Nick Ritchie a second chance on the top line. This completes the 25-year-old’s round trip of the line-up as he is right back to where he started the 2021-22 season. Ritchie has been on every line and played games with more than 15 minutes of ice time and games with under nine minutes. The second look comes on the same day as the Maple Leafs traded for another big body in Kyle Clifford. A message was sent and Ritchie heard it loud and clear.

Nick Ritchie Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Ritchie, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ritchie, playing in his seventh NHL season, had one of his better performances for Toronto during a 3-0 win over the Nashville Predators. He was throwing his body around, playing sound defensively and he got into a fight. This was the Nick Ritchie that Toronto was hoping for when they signed the free agent to a two-year deal worth $2.5 million a season. But we also saw a few glimpses of the play that got him demoted. He was benched for a couple of minutes in the second period after taking an undisciplined penalty.

Maple Leafs Giving Ritchie a Few Games

That said, Sheldon Keefe saw enough to keep the big man on the top line for a few more games, “right now, it is Ritchie’s opportunity,” said the head coach after the game. “We are looking to give him the chance to take hold of it. It hasn’t happened here quite yet, but we are going to stay with it and see what we can get out of it,” said Keefe.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Wayne Simmonds Becoming Expendable

It’s rare to get a second chance, but the Maple Leafs are right to try Ritchie on the top line again. The line that Ritchie auditioned on earlier this season was not the one Toronto had in mind when they worked him out in the summer. Auston Matthews missed the first three games and Mitch Marner struggled for the first couple of weeks. These two factors left the newly acquired Ritchie looking lost on the ice. He may have just been the easiest to spot at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds.

Morning Skate newsletter Click To Subscribe

Ritchie talked about the second chance, “it’s good, it gives you some confidence, just want to help them (Matthews and Marner) and help the team win.” Despite playing throughout the line-up and with some elite-level scorers, Ritchie has managed two assists. His solution, “keep plugging away, shooting, trying my best hope something falls.”

Ritchie Must Prove he is a Top-Line Player with the Addition of Another Big Man

While he wasn’t brought in for his scoring, Ritchie does need to show he is more than just a big body. Toronto re-acquired Clifford from the St. Louis Blues. The Maple Leafs had traded for him once before, back in the 2019-20 season. “We would’ve liked to have seen him return to us a season ago, but having him back in the organization now, I think it will be a very welcoming group if and when he gets with us. I believe over time, he will find his way here,” said Keefe.

Kyle Clifford St. Louis Blues
Kyle Clifford was traded from the St. Louis Blues to the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Clifford is currently assigned to the Toronto Marlies. If he does get called up, he will join Ritchie, Wayne Simmonds and perhaps to a lesser degree Michael Bunting in that physical, agitator role that Toronto so desperately needed to address. There is also Kurtis Gabriel waiting his turn also assigned to the Marlies. For a team that struggled with toughness for the last couple of seasons, there is now no shortage of grit in the lineup.

The difference is the expectations for Ritchie and he is the highest-paid player in that very crowded, and very physical group. For a team that is up against the salary cap, there are cheaper fourth-line players. Plus, Ilya Mikheyev is due to return next month, and other forwards are competing for more ice time. Ritchie has a short window to prove he belongs on the top line because it’s unlikely he will get a third opportunity.