I was recently inspired by an article from Mark Thompson in which he writes about Sepp van den Berg, a centre back that Liverpool recently bought. Thompson takes the reader through his journey of evaluating a player that is completely new to him. I am not a soccer fan, but I found the article quite interesting. Thompson writes about soccer tactics, but always has statistics intertwined in his work. Today, I hope to replicate the article using Brett Ritchie, a right winger that the Bruins acquired July 1.
In my opinion, the first step in player evaluation should always be to form a statistical profile. These are the most objective pieces of information in player evaluation, so I feel it is important to know them first as people generally anchor around the first piece of information they consume.
The two most popular regressed models in the public sphere are a good place to start. These models take into account teammates, competition, zone starts, among other factors to try to isolate the player’s on-ice contributions.
First up is Micah Blake McCurdy’s Magnus Isolate. You can read more about it here. The model finds Ritchie to be around average offensively and well above average defensively. This is similar to Noel Acciari, who he is essentially replacing. He also has a below average shot, but takes a large portion (29% in this time frame at evens) of his team’s shots when he is on the ice. He also has seen some powerplay time, but his team has had a tough time penetrating the net front when he is on the ice.
Evolving Hockey’s Regression-Adjusted Plus-Minus has a similar, but slightly more optimistic view of Ritchie. The model’s offensive output (Off_xG) finds him slightly above average offensively, while the defensive output (Def_xG) views him close to 2 standard deviations above average. Ritchie ranks 22nd out of 416 forwards who’ve played 1,000 even strength minutes in this statistic over the last three seasons.
Although he doesn’t kill penalties, I’m pretty confident in saying that Ritchie will be a solid defensive presence at even strength. The question marks regarding Ritchie are based around his offensive play. His 1.11 points per 60 at 5v5 over the last three seasons is fourth line level. While we’d expect the average NHLer to score 27 goals on the shots he has taken, he’s only scored 22, a testament to the poor shot mentioned earlier. Furthermore, he only has 5 primary assists at 5v5 over the last three seasons while playing 2,000 minutes.
Especially when looking at production, the quality of a player’s teammates matters a lot. Bad players generally play down in the lineup with other bad players, but sometimes good players can play down in the lineup and struggle to produce because they are playing with bad players. This is what we call a confounding variable. It’s difficult to tell whether or not Ritchie has produced poorly because of his teammates, or if he is truly a poor point producer.
Brett Ritchie’s 5v5 teammates since 2016
His most common forward teammates since 2016 don’t appear to be too bad at first glance, however given that he has played a bottom-six role throughout his career, Ritchie has probably seen these players on their worst days, like Spezza last season.
When trying to project what Ritchie will perform like in Boston, and whether or not he can produce in a bottom six role better than in Dallas, a few questions need to be answered that we don’t have data for. The first question that came to my mind was, how does Ritchie attack zone entries?
We do have some data on this, so I don’t want to ignore it. The 866 minute sample is a good chunk of his last three seasons. When it comes to the percentage of entries controlled, most forwards control a higher percentage of their entries than Ritchie. This is something we’d expect out of a bottom-six player, and really doesn’t answer much of my question. I’m far more concerned about his skillset and how he uses it in transition.
One of the first things you will pick up when watching Brett Ritchie is that he’s not the fastest skater. I think speed has gone from an undervalued commodity to an overvalued one very quickly. Slow players can still be effective in transition if they use their skillset properly.
Ritchie is going one-on-one with a forward here while the Avs’ Tyson Barrie is caught up ice. This is one of the most awkward middle-drives you will ever see. Ritchie is planning on giving the puck to Spezza the entire time. Once he releases the puck, he is going to drive the net while Janmark and the Stars defenseman joining the rush will look for outlets. However, Ritchie fails to make space for Spezza. Ritchie needs to be about even with the faceoff dots when entering the zone, forcing a two-on-one with his defender. A few simple crossovers can make the difference here. By failing to do this, it delays the middle-drive enough that Barrie is able to recover. Spezza has to make his pass to the front of the net later and from a worse angle.
While Ritchie seems to struggle manipulating defenders with his feet, he can create space using other means.
Ritchie is not going to blow by Johnson here. While many would love to see the 6-foot-4 winger driving the net, Ritchie creates time and space by opening himself up. It’s not as pretty as Ryan Spooner, but it’s still effective. This is a case of a player knowing his limits and playing within the boundaries he has.
This is a good example of his lack of acceleration. Atkinson is easily able to close in on him. Ritchie is forced to pass the puck to a teammate, and does it well.
Here’s another example of his slow acceleration, but this time there is no puck support, leading to a 50/50 puck battle with a Columbus forechecker. I think plays like this will happen far less in Boston than in Dallas.
The Stars have a torpedo-like system where all three forwards and one defenseman head up ice as quickly as possible. This demands speed from all of the players involved. While Ritchie’s top speed is not far off of other NHLers, he struggles to get up to speed. Boston’s system is built around puck support. This is because Bruce Cassidy values possession throughout the entire transition process.
Bruce Cassidy also encourages his defensemen to get the puck up the boards as quickly as possible, which can help the forwards ease past the first two layers of the opposing forecheck, making it harder for the opposing defensemen to create good gaps.
While I don’t think Ritchie will all of the sudden become a good player in transition with Boston, I do think some of his weaknesses will be alleviated in Cassidy’s system.
The next question I have is, how does Ritchie play in the offensive zone? This is one of the biggest elements of production and will fluctuate system to system. Offensive zone chemistry relies on players natural instincts and preferred playing styles. Teammates need to be on the same page in order to come together and create scoring chances.
Ritchie is definitely more of a power forward in the offensive zone. Here he crisply takes the puck off of the boards and uses his body to create space for himself. This allows for purposeful shot from an angle with a net drive.
Ritchie uses his feet very well here once again to create space for himself in order to recover the puck and get to the other side of the net. This is not the prettiest finish, but the potential for him to be very effective in the low cycle is there.
Taking a small trip back to the analytics side, but the small amount of data we have in the public sphere seems to back this up. Dangerous shot contributions, marked as iDZ60 and DZSA60 above, are shots that feature a pass from behind the net or across the royal road prior to it. While Ritchie is very poor at setting up shots, a high portion of them are dangerous contributions.
Furthermore, while Ritchie had a very poor 2018-19 campaign under Jim Montgomery, the Stars were able to create shots from the low slot at a far higher rate than league average in 2017-18. This shows Ritchie’s potential in the offensive zone.
The one setback with Ritchie’s archetype is that he relies on his teammates here as well. Without his teammates playing the puck low to him, he won’t be as effective.
- We can be very certain that Ritchie will be a good player defensively for the Bruins, but offensively there are a lot of unknowns.
- Ritchie isn’t the fastest player, leading him to be fairly dependent on his teammates. That doesn’t really work in Dallas, but shouldn’t hurt him as much in Boston.
- He also poses the ability to be effective in low cycles where he can use his size to shield off defenders.
By the eye test, I think this is a player a lot of Bruins fans aren’t going to like, especially if he doesn’t produce or plays up the lineup. A one-year contract at $1 million doesn’t pose a big risk for the Bruins. I think there is potential for Ritchie to succeed in a system that suits him better like Boston’s.