It appears the Toronto Maple Leafs are done trying to pump up the tires of underperforming forward Nick Ritchie.
After continuously highlighting the positives in his game throughout the season, the club put him on waivers on Wednesday.
The move comes after a difficult game against the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday. After sitting out the Leafs 6-0 win against the Ottawa Seantors as a healthy scratch, Ritchie was particularly exposed on Brendan Perlini’s goal that tied the game 1-1.
“It was a difficult decision because I think he has shown progress and his confidence is in a good spot,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said of the decision to scratch Ritchie. “I had a conversation with him, was pretty honest about it. But at the same time, much like I’ve had the talk with the defensemen, none of these guys that are sitting out are going to be sitting for very long.”
Ritchie signed a two-year contract worth $2.5 million per season, the highest average annual value of any of the team’s free-agent forward signings this past summer. Expected to provide some offense to a team challenge by salary cap constraints, Ritchie has underperformed with just one goal and seven assists in 30 games.
The other buy-low forwards signed by the Leafs, however, have worked out better.
Michael Bunting, signed to a two-year contract worth $950,000 per season and has become a regular fixture on the Leafs’ top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Bunting has seven goals and 12 assists in 32 games.
Ondrej Kase has also provided value. The forward signed a one-year deal with $1.25 million this season and has eight goals and eight assists in 28 games.
Given Ritchie’s high cap number and poor offensive stats, it’s unlikely the 26-year-old gets claimed on Friday. If a team takes a chance on him, that will clear $2.5 million of the team’s salary cap that they could desperately use once salary-cap transition rules put in place due to the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus expire at the end of the month.
If Ritchie goes unclaimed, the Leafs can assign him to the Marlies, or more likely, the taxi squad. Toronto would only receive $1.125 million in cap space, the maximum threshold that can be buried outside of their active roster.
Ilya Mikheyev’s impressive return from injury thus far has completed the Maple Leafs top-12 forward group and it was hard to make a solid argument that Ritchie was inside of those 12.
And at a $2.5 million salary cap, he hasn’t performed to that standard.