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HOCKEY'S FUTURE: Panthers rookie Byron Ritchie

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It is widely recognized that when it comes to the issue of size for hockey players, larger players seemingly always get consideration over smaller players. For a brief time in the mid '90s, large, skilled players were in vogue as the "Legion of Doom" was carving its way through the Eastern Conference. General managers were looking for the next "big" player to come through the draft to counteract the destruction that these large players were wreaking in portions of the league. While a player of Eric Lindros' size and skill are always coveted, sometimes it is the smaller guys who make just as much difference on their teams. Guys like Steve Sullivan, Paul Kariya, Ray Whitney, Theo Fleury , and Sergei Samsonov all play big games in contrast to their smaller stature. Another small player, Byron Ritchie, is starting to make his presence felt on the Florida Panthers, and he, too, has never taken into consideration the negatives toward the small players. "I never had a problem with size being an issue, and as long as a guy like me isn't intimidated by the bigger players, I don't even think the size is really an issue," Ritchie said, "For instance, Doug Gilmour of Montreal. He isn't a big player but he has had an awesome career and he is one of the feistiest players in the league." On Jan. 16, the Panthers made a trade with the Hurricanes in acquiring defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and center Byron Ritchie, giving Florida the puck-moving offensive defenseman they have been searching for since their inception. For a player originally drafted in the 7th round of the 1995 draft by the then Hartford Whalers, his first time being traded was a new experience for him. "I was half ready for practice, they called me in and gave me the news. It didn't really sink in and was a little bit of a shock, but a little excitement for the fresh start," Ritchie said. "It sunk in two weeks after, and things have been going really well since I got here. I have been given a great opportunity, and I am really happy here." Ritchie was inserted into the Panthers lineup the day of the trade, where he saw less than 2 minutes of ice-time and was subsequently scratched for the next 4 games. But the limited ice-time didn't hold Ritchie back from playing his game, even when sent to Lowell (AHL) for a few games. "I didn't play a lot my first few weeks here," Ritchie said. "Went down to Lowell and was successful for a week there, and got called back up and ever since I have been given a great opportunity and my confidence is starting to come around." That confidence and injuries to centers Viktor Kozlov and Ryan Johnson allowed coach Mike Keenan to increase the ice-time allowed to Ritchie, and he scored his first point as a Panther in his second game back. Seeing a young player play with emotion and hustle is always one way to earn points with your coach. Playing with that emotion on a team full of veterans who only cared when it suited them was a sure way to get noticed by a coach. But taking nights off isn't something suited to the young centerman. "You got to love the game, even when you have been doing it your whole life, and you got to love coming to the rink," Ritchie said. "If you don't love coming to rink, than there is something wrong and you better look at other avenues." Keenan also took notice and can be seen in practice giving tips. "Maybe it because of my work ethic and my playing gritty every night," Ritchie said. "Mike has been great for me helping with defensive zone stuff and little tricks of the trade that he has known for some time and passed them through to me" After scoring his first point as a Panther, Ritchie went through a string of seven games where he wasn't a factor on the score sheet. The weight of still not scoring his first NHL goal might have had an effect on his play. "It wore on me cause I haven't scored in a long time in the NHL," Ritchie said. "And I got to remember to look back at my last few years in Carolina, where I averaged two or three minutes a game. It is tough to score like that, you just don't want to make a mistake out there!" But there's a big difference in ice time when you are a playoff contending team stocked with veterans, and playing on a team beset by injuries and struggling to keep out of the basement in the standings. Since notching his assist against Tampa Bay, Ritchie's ice time has been averaging over 10 minutes a game and it paid off for the hustling centerman from Burnaby, British Columbia. Ritchie scored his first NHL goal on Mar. 8 against the Oilers and followed it up the next night by scoring the game-tying goal against Nashville. With those two goals and the ensuing personal success, Ritchie went on to score a total of seven points in six games, including his first multi-point game (goal and an assist) against Buffalo on Mar. 15. With hockey being the quintessential team game, having players who feed off each other sometimes can more than make up for the lack of their combined experience. "(Kristian) Huselius and I were using our speed to our advantage and creating a lot of opportunities in the few games we played together." Ritchie said. While playing his junior days in Lethbridge, Ontario, Ritchie enjoyed two seasons of scoring 50-plus goals and 100-plus points. While a lot of players are able to become prolific goal scorers on that level, translating that to the professional level is the next step a player must take in his maturation as a hockey player. In the Hurricanes system, Ritchie started out in the AHL with the New Haven Beast, where he was able to play with current Panther Ryan Johnson. In each consecutive year in the AHL when he was able to play over 40 games, Ritchie increased his point totals over the previous campaign. This will be the first year where he will not be able to increase his point totals in the minors, and being able to play in the NHL is one way to cure that potential problem. When asked on the differences on being able to score at the NHL level, Ritchie said, "Obviously, the game is a lot quicker. I feel I have adapted to the pace of the game, the puck movement of the game is coming naturally to me now. You got to shoot the puck to score, and the goalies are a lot better at this level." The irony in that statement is that with the exception of his first goal, the remaining four goals were the result of Ritchie crashing the crease looking for rebounds or deflected in right on top of the crease. The 2001-02 Panthers weren't able to put last season behind them. This season is looking to be even worse in terms of injury problems, locker-room issues, and being the worst season points wise in Panther history. Ritchie is just glad to have found a place where he can make a difference on several levels. "Right now, I love coming to the rink, put some wins in the win column," he said. "Right now I am having fun and trying to stay focused on every game." And like most players who don't fill the mold of the towering physical behemoths that scouts tend to notice first, Ritchie uttered word s for players like him to live by. "Sometimes it isn't the size of the man, but the size of the man's heart." Mark Fischel is the managing editor of Hockey's Future, the No. 1 source for hockey prospect information on the Web.
Tagged: Bruins, Blackhawks, Oilers, Hurricanes, Rangers, Ducks, Panthers, Blue Jackets, Sergei Samsonov, Steve Sullivan, Sandis Ozolinsh, Paul Kariya, Ryan Johnson, Ray Whitney

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