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Can the Maple Leafs Salvage Nick Ritchie?

Nick Ritchie has passed through waivers after struggling this season. Can the Toronto Maple Leafs turn his year around?
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Honestly? Probably not. But let's talk about it. 

To say that Nick Ritchie has been a bust for the Maple Leafs would be an understatement. 

On the surface, a $2.5 million AAV doesn't read like the David Clarkson-type of  albatross that cripples a franchise and stamps a GM's walking papers. But given how much pressure is on the Leafs to succeed this season, and just how tight they've pushed themselves against the cap to do so, throwing $2.5 million down the drain is a gut punch. 

That's more or less what they've done by signing Ritchie, by the way. He's provided zero ROI. 

The man has two goals goal in 31 games despite being served a top-line role alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to start the season, and ample power-play usage to go with an offensive zone start percentage over 57 percent. 

Even the coaching staff has bent over backward to make Ritchie feel comfortable, steering criticism away from the hulking winger while always making sure to mention the "little things" he does well whenever fielding questions about his lack of production. 

Case in point; the Maple Leafs have given Ritchie every possible opportunity to succeed this year. And he just simply hasn't. 

Now, he's cleared waivers. The entire league had an opportunity to get Ritchie for free, and passed. Not ideal!

These things happen, though. It's not uncommon for a GM to unwittingly sign a square peg to fill a round hole. And given that Ritchie will likely need to be packaged with a sweetener in a trade, the Leafs might as well try to find a way to make their square peg fit. 

How do they do that? 

Well, one option is to simply wait. 

Ritchie has never been an offensive phenom by any stretch of the imagination -- which makes you wonder how he even earned this contract in the first place, but I digress -- but he's nonetheless been remarkably snake-bitten this season. 

Prior to Saturday night's matchup with the Colorado Avalanche, Ritchie was shooting a paltry 2.2 percent, well below both the 12.4 percent he shot over the past two years in Boston and his career average of 9.1.

The rub here is that Ritchie actually scored on Saturday night, notching his second tally of the year with a sweet power play marker. That goal brought Ritchie's shooting percentage up to 4.2 percent in 2021-22. And when you're over 30 games into the season and scoring one goal nearly doubles your shooting percentage, that's a good way to tell luck has not been in your favour. 

The deeper data supports this, too. 

Shockingly, Ritchie hasn't been all that terrible when it comes to generating even-strength offence. According to data from JFresh of EP Rinkside, Ritchie places in the 57th percentile among NHLers in even-strength chances, right in the middle of the pack in this trait despite his complete lack of production this season. 

Where Ritchie stumbles, however, is actually finishing those chances, which sees him tumble down to the 31st percentile when looking at conversion rate among his peers, near the bottom of the league. 

That's, uh, not good. But let's dive into these numbers a tad deeper.

JFresh's data -- which is wonderful, by the way -- represents a weighted average that is compiled from the 2020-21 season all the way to the present day. With the timeline established, it's clear that Ritchie's lack of finishing isn't exactly brand new. But this is a guy who still managed to score 15 goals last season while ranking in the NHL's bottom-third in conversion rate, and has averaged roughly 10-15 over a full 82-game season throughout his career. 

Even if Ritchie doesn't improve his finishing at all this season, the numbers still suggest his production is bound to go up -- at least, to some degree. 

And when you're a capped out team trying to squeeze any morsel of value out of a $2.5 million power forward with two goals, you'll take whatever improvements you can get. 

But waiting can only get you so far. At some point, you need to act. 

As I mentioned, the Leafs have given Ritchie every possible opportunity to succeed this season, surrounding him with high-end talent and structuring his minutes specifically to give him an offensive advantage. This is a trend, it seems, when it comes to deploying Ritchie throughout his career, with the Bruins practically stapling him to David Krejci in 2021 during what was ultimately a career-best year. 

But the Leafs already tried this strategy, having paired Ritchie with Marner, their defacto best playmaker, for nearly 120 minutes at even-strength this season, nearly tied for the most of any forward. 

The result? Zero goals for and three against. 

Therein lies the predicament. 

The Leafs can't afford to weigh down their top line with Ritchie for as long as it takes for his shooting luck to turn around. But he's typically needed high-end linemates to produce the numbers befitting of a player with his cap hit. 

Managing this situation is not an enviable position to be in. But it's one the Leafs brought on themselves. And now, it seems, their only course of action is to wait. 

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