Stanks On Sports
Sometimes the idea of the next man up just doesn’t work.
The Prince Albert Raiders are finding that life without star 17-year-old right-winger Ryder Ritchie is tough slugging. Back on December 15, 2023, the Raiders were playing their last game before departing on their Christmas break hosting the Kelowna Rockets at the Art Hauser Centre. With 7:30 remaining in the third period, Ritchie was on the receiving end of a knee-on-knee hit from Rockets 19-year-old left-winger Max Graham.
The Raiders went on to drop that contest 4-3 after Rockets star centre Tij Iginla netted the winner with 21.7 seconds remaining in the third. With that setback, the Raider still had a sound 17-15-0-2 record and departed into the Christmas break with a good grip on a spot in the WHL Playoffs.
Since returning from the Christmas break, Ritchie hasn’t been available due to that knee-to-knee hit. In his absence, the Raiders have gone 2-7-1-1 to fall to 19-22-1-3. With 42 standings points, the Raiders sit tied with the Calgary Hitmen (18-18-5-1) for eighth place overall and the final post-season berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, and the Hitmen have three games in hand.
In 34 games with the Raiders this season, Ritchie has recorded 13 goals and 18 assists for 31 points. He was producing a strong follow up to a great 16-year-old rookie season in 2022-23, where he recorded 20 goals and 35 assists for 55 points in 61 regular season outings.
While he is only 17-years-old, Ritchie, who stands 6-feet and weighs 173 pounds, is already attracting extra attention from opponents, and he has put up great numbers for a 17-year-old dealing with that extra attention. Ritchie is facing the best defensive pairings Raiders foes have on a nightly basis along with their best forward lines.
Due to the fact he draws extra attention, Ritchie’s teammates on the Raiders other three forward lines often benefit from draw some more favourable matchups from opponents. That can still happen even with the Raiders still carrying still a relatively young roster. That fact was likely recognized by NHL scouts contributing to Ritchie being ranked 16th overall among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings that were released on January 12.
In sports, teams like to use the cliché “next man up,” but sometimes the player that is lost to injury is so good it becomes that much harder to compensate for that loss. The Raiders have lost their last five straight games, which have all been played on the road.
It can be argued the team put in a good effort in each of those contests with three one-goal losses and two setbacks by two goals. One of the one-goal losses came in a tiebreaking shootout this past Sunday to the Hitmen in Calgary.
It is possible Ritchie’s presence could have changed the results of two or three of those games, because of the offence he can produce and the fact those opposing clubs would be altering their game plans to account for Ritchie.
Ritchie was originally slated to play in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game slated to be held Wednesday at the Avenir Centre in Moncton, N.B. On Monday, Ritchie along with Medicine Hat Tigers 17-year-old centre Cayden Lindstrom were replaced at the Top Prospects Game by Eriks Mateiko of the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs and Nathan Villeneuve of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves. James Tubb of the Medicine Hat News reported Lindstrom is still out three-to-five weeks after having surgery to deal with an upper body injury.
On the positive side, many players on the Raiders young roster are getting more ice time and opportunities to play different roles in Ritchie’s absence. As a result, it creates a situation where a lot of learning can happen, but there will be losses in the standings as the learning occurs.
When Ritchie does return, the Raiders overall roster should be better with the extra experience that was gained. While some fans would be tempted to rush Ritchie back, he still has a long ways to go in the big picture in his hockey career, so the doctors should be left to make the call here.
The Raiders have to play the cards that are dealt their way the best they can in this case.
The return of the Rebels, other notes
“Take me home, country roads.”
After a slow start, it appears the Red Deer Rebels have returned to their gritty, all-heart, refuse to lose form.
By tradition, the Rebels are best known for being emblematic of playing a style of game worthy of the hard-working Sutter family, which comes naturally due to the fact Brent Sutter owns the team. Last season, the Rebels topped the Central Division with a 43-19-3-3 record. They advanced to the second round of the WHL Playoffs and were up 3-0 on the Saskatoon Blades in a best-of-seven series before the Blades rallied with four straight wins to take the set.
Early in Game 4 of that series, the Rebels lost star centre Kalan Lind to a blindside elbow hit from Blades right-winger Justin Lies. Lies was suspended for the remainder of that series and Lind was able to return to play Game 7.
After Lind went down, the Rebels never fully got back on task focusing on playing a tight checking game which allowed them to take the first three contests of the series. It seemed what happened to Lind was on the minds of the Rebels players, and they got pre-occupied with getting involved in various little battles instead of focusing on what they needed to do to win.
The hangover of falling to the Blades seemed to carry over into this season. The Rebels stumbled a bit coming out of the gate posting a 13-12-0-3 record to begin the 2023-24 season.
Since that start, the Rebels have posted a 12-1-1-1 record including winning their last seven straight games to improve to 25-13-1-4. They trail the Tigers (28-14-3) by four standings points for first place in the Central Division with two games in hand.
Red Deer’s improvement has coincided with the emergence of 17-year-old rookie netminder in Chase Wutzke. In 19 appearances for the Rebels this season, Wutzke has posted a 13-2-3 record, a 2.16 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.
Wutzke, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 152 pounds, has started the last six games in the Rebels current seven game winning streak and has given up just one goal in five of those six starts. He was named the WHL’s goaltender of the week for the last two straight weeks.
With the Wutzke giving the Rebels outstanding play in net, a whole host of Rebels veterans have been playing to their classic best forms in Lind, Kai Uchacz, Ollie Josephson, Mats Lindgren, Jhett Larson, Talon Brigley, Frantisek Formanek, Hunter Mayo, Carson Latimer, Carson Birnie, Dwayne Jean Jr., Jace Weir, Quentin Bourne and Matteo Fabrizi.
“In Sutter they trust” is a strong belief by the folks in Red Deer, and you can expect they have visions of singing John Denver’s hit song from 1971 during third period stretches deep into the post-season.
- On Tuesday, the CHL announced centre Alexandre Blais of the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic will replace centre Maxmilian Curran of the Tri-City Americans at the Top Prospects Game. Curran is out due to injury.
- Moose Jaw Warriors star centre Jagger Firkus had vaulted to the top of the WHL scoring race. Firkus leads the WHL in scoring with 81 points coming off 35 goals and 46 assists to go with a plus-22 rating in the plus-minus department. He has recorded points in his last 17 straight games posting 38 points coming off 13 goals and 25 assists over that time.
- Czechia product and netminder Jan Spunar of the Portland Winterhawks has the WHL’s best save percentage at .929. Spunar has appeared in 16 games for the Winterhawks this season posting an 11-3-1 record, a 1.82 goals against average and one shutout to go with his save percentage.
Darren Steinke is a Saskatoon-based freelance sportswriter and photographer with more than 20 years of experience covering the WHL. He blogs frequently at stankssermon.blogspot.com.