Bruins’ Bjork vs. Ritchie decision can’t be decided on just preseason production

Matt Kalman
September 27, 2019 - 9:21 am

Anders Bjork has had one of the stronger training camps among Bruins forwards. He has two assists in three games and has been flying around the rink

Brett Ritchie has put up a goose egg in three preseason games and hasn’t had the puck on his stick much. After the Bruins made their latest round of cuts, it appears Bjork and Ritchie are fighting for a spot among the Bruins’ middle six forwards.

In a video game world it’s clear to many observers that Bjork should be on the opening night roster, and Ritchie should be in the press box or on waivers before heading to Providence.

However, these are flesh-and-blood players and the decision here isn’t as clear cut as looking at the points, looking at shot totals and deciding one player should skated against Dallas on Oct. 3 and one should not.

There are numerous reasons why Ritchie will start the season in the Bruins’ lineup, and probably should.

Let’s start with the most important thing: Bjork’s health. He’s eight months removed from his second season-ending shoulder surgery. He’s been working his tail off to get back to this point, but even Bjork, at 23, understands it’s going to take time before he can reach his full potential.

 “I want to have as little hiccups as possible. Guys I’ve talked to, you feel it a little bit. It takes a year to get to full [health> where you don’t notice it. … So I’m pleased with where it’s been, I’m also expecting a little bit of setbacks and stuff,” he recently told WEEI.com.

Coach Bruce Cassidy has talked about Bjork needing to play a few games in a row to build up his confidence. Cassidy has been playing Bjork on his strong side, the left wing, to get the Notre Dame product to get out of bad habits that saw him taking too many hits. Even after 72 professional games, Bjork has a lot to learn and the NHL, and a season-opening road trip against some of the best teams in the Western Conference, might not be the place to learn them.

Bjork has passed the eye test in preseason games, but take into account the sample size and the competition: three games against lineups that were half-AHL and half NHL veterans going at 75-80 percent.

Now you could use that description of the preseason sample size to indict Ritchie. He was almost invisible when he should’ve been standing out. But Ritchie is a different type of player. Bjork can play with the puck, Ritchie has to grind out his production, getting to rebounds and winning battles.

It’s fair to look beyond the preseason and see that Ritchie’s struggles go though his past two seasons in Dallas, where he had just 11 goals in 124 games following his 16-goal 2016-17 season. He just might not have what it takes to be a middle-six power forward. But the Bruins have built an organization and culture based on trust and fair shots. Ritchie played two shifts with David Krejci before the center got hurt, and played his other two games with Jack Studnicka and Par Lindholm. He hasn’t had a chance to build chemistry.

And the Bruins aren’t going to discount what their research told them in July because of two lackluster weeks. Remember what general manager Don Sweeney said after the Ritchie signing:

“Do we expect him to reach [16 goals again>? We hope, we do, put him back in some situations that – you know, he’s played for three different coaches in the last three years. We went through all the metrics in terms of where he can help us with puck possession. … Now we’re hopeful Brett will come in, recognize the opportunity in front of him and take advantage of it playing with potentially one of three pretty good centers. Get to the hard areas of the ice … he can really shoot the puck, and he’s got size.”

Now if Patrice Bergeron and/or Krejci, or any of Boston’s top six forwards, starts the season on the sideline with an injury, a lot of this argument gets thrown out the window. In that case Cassidy may not have any choice but to throw all his hotter skill players into the mix. In a healthy lineup, though, Ritchie could start on a line with Charlie Coyle and Danton Heinen (it’s doubtful Krejci is going to give up Karson Kuhlman this soon) and try to play a heavy-forecheck, cycling, puck protection game. That line would probably be third in line for the toughest defensive matchups, taking some of that heat off Ritchie.

Bjork is waiver exempt and can easily be placed in Providence. Ritchie would probably clear waivers, but that might not be worth Boston’s risk, especially if Sweeney believes Ritchie’s value may not be truly realized until the stretch run and playoffs, when bigger players (remember Pat Maroon in St. Louis?) become crucial to a team’s success.

This plan isn’t about just trusting the GM of the Year and the whiz kid coach to always make the right decision. Sweeney and Cassidy, though, have heard enough rope to give their metrics and projections a chance in a regular season environment, in a stable lineup.

However, they can’t wait long to pull the plug. The Bruins have to use their depth the best they can, and if Ritchie’s looking like a Jimmy Hayes-sized flop, and Bjork or someone else is tearing up the AHL, the Bruins may have to make a switch maybe even a soon as the end of the season-opening road trip. But there’s no guarantee Bjork will be the first call-up either, depending how he’s feeling, physically and mentally, and what the Bruins think they’re missing in their lineup.

Of course, between now and Monday, the Bruins may have already decided Bjork has won the job and Ritchie may be driving to The Dunk.

But if it’s Ritchie over Bjork on that roster the Bruins submit by 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Bruins will have made a low-risk decision that could pay off in the long both for both players and them.

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