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Nick Ritchie should vie for top-six role with Maple Leafs

TORONTO – Drafted by Anaheim in 2014. Traded to Boston at the 2020 deadline. Left unqualified as RFAs by the Bruins on Monday. Signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs as unrestricted free agents by the weekend.

Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase are two very different wingers tracing a similar path.

And while the catch with Kase will be avoiding injury, the big, bruising Ritchie is more likely to injure.

A six-foot-two, 234-pound first-round pick, Ritchie brings more career penalty minutes (387) than games played (350) to Toronto.

But the big man can play.

Ritchie, 25, signed to a two-year, $5-million contract with the Maple Leafs Saturday morning, after meeting in-person with the organization’s staff and touring their practice facilities earlier this week.

“I didn’t know I was going to be an unrestricted free agent,” said Ritchie after an emotional week on the market. “There’s kinda some highs and lows with it being a new experience, but I enjoyed how it ended. Just so excited to play for the Leafs and wear the Maple Leaf on my chest this year.

“There was lots of teams with interest, and I just chose what I thought was the best team and the best fit for me at this stage in my career.”

What the Orangeville, Ont., native, 2015 world junior gold medallist and former Soo Greyhound (another one!) brings is a rugged element the Leafs’ forward core had been lacking and another low-cost option for coach Sheldon Keefe to try in his top nine.

Or — even better — his top six.

“When you sign with a team, you want to play with good hockey players, and that’s part of the reason why I signed. There’s lots of good hockey players on the Leafs. I’m just gonna have a great rest of the summer and come ready to go and see where the chips fall. And hopefully you’re right about that,” Ritchie said.

“I always liked the way [Keefe] coached and knew he was going to get to the next level, and here he is with the Leafs. And it’s a dream come true to come back and play for a coach that I know and a hometown team.”

Given the limited (and self-inflicted) price range GM Kyle Dubas was given to fill in around the fringes and replace the significant left wing loss of Zach Hyman, the general manager has done some nice work in securing Ritchie to go along with Kase, Michael Bunting and David Kämpf.

They’ve all accepted relatively small money to help push the big Core Four over the hump.

“It falls on me and our management team to find the pieces around the group that can contribute to having it break through,” Dubas said.

“I understand why people doubt it. I don’t try to fight the doubt and the criticism of it. I think it is up to us to show we can do it. Until then, I think people having their doubts about it are completely fair.”

The light-checking Leafs are importing a forechecker who has averaged 2.54 hits per game in his career and is coming off his most productive goal-scoring season (15 goals in 56 games).

The rival Bruins used Ritchie for 15:22 per night in 2021, marking the highest average ice time of his career. Ritchie’s usage was chopped to 12:02 in Boston’s two-round playoff run, and he was blindsided by GM Don Sweeney’s decision to let him walk for nothing.

“I’m [more] worried about what’s going to happen this year than worried about the past,” said Ritchie, biting his tongue on Boston. “Not much to say there.”

Ritchie will be an interesting experiment in Toronto’s top six, doing some of the dirty work for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner or John Tavares and William Nylander. Or the top-10 pick could settle in on a third line in need of an identity.

Eighty-two games will give a tinkerer like Keefe plenty of time to Tetris together his ideal combinations.

The internal competition will be intense.

“We were all Leaf fans growing up, with it being the closest team to us [in Orangeville]. There was always the bug about the Leafs. Being away from it for a few years, you kind of lose that. But now it’s right back on. I got tons of messages from people. Everyone’s really excited, family and friends,” Ritchie said.

“Hopefully I can help the rest of the team get over that hump.”

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