Don Sweeney wasn’t sweating the risk when he signed Brett Ritchie last summer. The Bruins general manager committed one year and $1 million, a decent bet on a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound right wing with a promising combination of youth (26) and past success. If Ritchie didn’t wind up a bust, he might be a nice replacement for outgoing banger Noel Acciari, if not a top-six candidate.
At the 30-game mark, the Bruins still don’t know what they have in Ritchie, who returned to the lineup Saturday against the Avalanche after an infected elbow kept him out for two weeks. Is he a ghost in a No. 18 jersey? Is he the guy who scored 16 goals in his first full season, with Dallas in 2016-17? Somewhere in between? The brass was eager to learn more.
“The reason Donnie brought him into the mix is because we were looking to add some size, get inside, score some goals that way, be a presence,” said coach Bruce Cassidy said before scratching David Backes to make room on the right wing. “Unfortunately for Brett, it’s been a stop-and-start sort of season for him. We don’t have a great evaluation for him.”
Sixteen games is not enough to get a read on a player in and out as much as Ritchie. He was physical against the Avalanche in the 4-1 loss, landing five hits, but earned a minus-2. He also missed the net on a first-period breakaway that would have made it 2-0, Boston.
He scored the first Bruins goal of the year, sending home a heavy wrister opening night against his old mates in Dallas, but found himself out of the lineup in Colorado three games later when Joakim Nordstrom was healthy enough to play. He knocked Backes out of the lineup the next game against New Jersey, and got up to speed with an eight-game run, but his elbow kept him out of the mix for all but four of the next 17 games.
He had not played since logging an assist and 10:09 of ice Nov. 23 against Minnesota.
“At times he’s looked to be that missing part,” Cassidy said. “Other times, you just don’t know because he’s getting up to speed again. That’s what he’ll be doing [Saturday], unfortunately. He missed some time, and he chased the game a bit.
“Now, he’s been working really hard in practice. He looks good. The good thing for him is that it hasn’t been a serious injury that’s really kept him out, but unfortunately, not enough reps.”
“So we’re not sure on chemistry, but eventually, hopefully, this is it and it sorts itself out. Because that’s a question we want to answer, one way or another.”
The days of fourth-line heavyweights are over. The Bruins don’t have a traditional enforcer. But Ritchie, who started on a line with left wing Anders Bjork and center Sean Kuraly, could help by throwing his weight around.
Of the 297 forwards who played more than 300 all-situations minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick, superstar David Pastrnak has taken the 34th-most hits per 60 minutes. Last year in Dallas, Ritchie ranked 13th among forwards in hits per 60 (14.85).
“That’s smart of them to try and go after our top players,” said Ritchie, who scored a decisive win over San Jose’s Barclay Goodrow on Oct. 29, in one of the Bruins’ five fights this year. “A guy like me tries to go after some of their top guys and try to get them off their games. I think there are other guys in this room who will do that, too.
“And it goes both ways. If I was playing against the Boston Bruins, I’d be trying to go after their top guys, too. That’s just the way it goes in hockey. We have guys on our team who’ll try to do the same thing.”
Bergeron sits out
Patrice Bergeron (core/groin) missed his seventh game in a row, and ninth in the last 11. He will travel to Ottawa and could return in Monday’s game . . . Colorado coach Jared Bednar had no postgame update on No. 1 goalie Philipp Grubauer or young star defenseman Cale Makar, both of whom left with injuries. About four minutes into the third, Makar left for the dressing room after taking a pop from Brad Marchand. Looked like a left shoulder injury. The Hobey Baker winner, who like Charlie McAvoy, left a Massachusetts school (UMass) for an NHL playoff run, entered tied for second in points among defensemen (8-20—28) and a clear favorite for the Calder Trophy . . . Grubauer might have snagged a groin on Ritchie’s breakaway. He ceded the net to lefty backup Pavel Francouz, who made 16 stops in 42-plus minutes of work . . . Colorado defenseman Ian Cole scored the go-ahead goal in his 500th NHL game . . . Chris Wagner, who opened the scoring, has goals in two straight games. The unofficial Mayor of Walpole played 26 games for the Avalanche in 2015-16 before being waived and reclaimed by the Ducks . . . The Avalanche are scoring 3.69 goals per game, second best in the league. The Bruins are fourth (3.5) . . . Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov (6-6, 235 pounds), who concussed Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi on Thursday, landed 10 smacks Saturday in a game-high 27:10 . . . Boston remained in second place in goals allowed per game (2.3) . . . Their power play, on a 1-for-15 skid, has dropped to third overall (28.4 percent) . . . Ex-Toronto hothead Nazem Kadri missed his second game in a row with a lower-body injury. “He’s fun to play against,” Marchand said. “He competes hard. You never know what’s going to do down [but] I didn’t miss getting hit by him.”
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports.