It didn’t take long for right wing Brett Ritchie to make an impact with the Texas Stars. In his first game, and on just his second shift, the 19-year-old scored his first professional goal.
Ritchie received a centering pass from Texas forward Mike Hedden and backhanded it into the net from close range. It was one of three goals Ritchie would score in five regular season games after joining the team once his junior season ended.
Ritchie had a big impact in his first Calder Cup Playoff game as well, scoring in overtime as Texas defeated Milwaukee 3-2 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Ritchie took a pass just inside the Milwaukee blue line, skated on net and beat Admirals goaltender Magnus Hellberg with a wrist shot from the slot.
“I thought I’ve played pretty well,” Ritchie said. “It wasn’t that hard of an adjustment and scoring on that second shift made it a little bit easier. I think I transitioned pretty well and I am feeling pretty good right now.”
There hasn’t been any problem getting used to life in the Cedar Park area for the Ontario native.
“It’s nice,” he said. “Everything is state-of-the-art, pretty new. The weather is great. I have a good apartment, so I am happy with everything.”
Ritchie, who shoots right and is listed at 6-4, 215 pounds, is considered one of Dallas’ top prospects. The Hockey News ranked Ritchie as the team’s No. 1 prospect, and 46th overall in the game in its Future Watch 2013, which was published earlier this spring.
“He’s a big, strong player. He’s got a great shot. He can cycle low,” said Texas Stars head coach Willie Desjardins. “He has a lot of really good attributes to his game, and he’s proven it at a lot of different levels. He’s fit right in.”
Ritchie, Dallas’ second round pick (44th overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft, joined the Texas Stars after a big season in juniors with the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League. He registered 41 goals and 35 assists in 53 games with the IceDogs, finishing sixth in the league in goal scoring.
He had an incredible stretch that ran through all of November into early December in which he scored 23 goals in 16 games. He scored goals in 14 of those 16 games and scored an incredible nine goals in back-to-back games.
Ritchie said the seeds of his successful OHL season were planted last summer, when he spent time training with one of the leaders in high performance conditioning.
“I think it started in the offseason when I started working out with Gary Roberts,” Ritchie said. “I felt really good coming into this season and I felt I was due for a big year.”
His performance in the first half of the season with Niagara helped him land a spot on Canada’s roster for the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. Ritchie had 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists) and a plus-3 rating in 6 games for Canada, which lost to Russia in the bronze medal game.
“That was a good experience. It was something I really wanted to do, that was a goal of mine at the start of the year,” he said. “Obviously we wanted gold and didn’t get that, but you still learn a lot and even through losing, you come back stronger and learn from the experience. I took a lot from it.”
After the World Juniors, Ritchie went to Frisco, where the Stars were opening training camp after the NHL lockout ended. He spent a few days there and then headed back to the OHL for 21 more regular season games and the playoffs, which didn’t go as he and the IceDogs had hoped. Niagara got knocked out in the first round, so that meant it was off to Cedar Park.
“It’s been pretty non-stop,” Ritchie said. “I really haven’t had a break, but it’s been a lot of fun.”
The adjustment from juniors to the AHL went pretty smoothly for Ritchie, who had 191 points (99 goals, 92 assists) in 220 games during his OHL career.
“It was a little bit of an adjustment to start, and luckily, I had a few practices to get used to the pace before the first game. Every day I am getting more used to it,” he said. “Not as much space as I was used to. Even from the regular season to the playoffs, it was another step. Actually, I took two steps quickly and I had to make sure I was on my toes, not to make any stupid errors and just try to be a dependable player out there.”
Like many players making the jump to the pro ranks, his play without the puck has been a major focus.
“Defensive details… at this level, it is so much different than what I am used to,” Ritchie said. “I think that was the biggest adjustment, paying attention to the details on the defensive side of the puck whether it is in your own end or the neutral zone. And just getting the confidence to make plays, beat D wide and use my offensive instincts on a regular basis.”
Desjardins noted some other adjustments that a player such as Ritchie needs to make when coming out of juniors.
“It’s a little different than juniors, where you play 22 or 23 minutes and you kind of save yourself on some shifts. He’s got to break that habit,” Desjardins said. “He needs to be more high-tempo every shift. But he’s been really good for us.”
It’s been a long season for Ritchie, whose junior team opened training camp in late August and started the regular season on September 20. Throw in the World Juniors in Russia, a quick trip to the Dallas training camp and you’d think Ritchie’s tank might start running a little low. But he said it’s just the opposite. Joining the Texas Stars and the team’s playoff run, which continues with the opening of the Western Conference Semifinals against Oklahoma City on Thursday, has provided a shot of energy.
“If I was in the OHL for this long the whole time it would probably feel like a pretty long season, but it feels like a brand new season when I came to the AHL,” he said. “I am pretty fresh and just excited to keep going. … We’re jelling as a team, we’re getting more comfortable and we’re looking to make a pretty good run here.”
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