— Mattias Ritola isn’t taking anything for granted this year.
The 23-year-old Swedish forward admitted that not making the Red Wings last season affected his performance, especially early in the year.
“It was a really up and down year,” Ritola said. “It started out really bad. I felt like I had a pretty good camp and I wouldn’t say I was disappointed but it was something where you were close and you got sent down to Grand Rapids and you wanted to be up here. I played really bad and it’s something I really regret. It was just in my head. Then Abby (Justin Abdelkader) came down at the end of the year and I really picked up my game and I felt pretty good. I got the call up and I felt comfortable when I was up there.”
With the Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL), Ritola matched his total of the 2008-09 season with 42 points but needed seven more games to do so. He scored 19 goals, four more than he did the previous season.
Ritola also played in five regular-season games and one playoff game with the Wings, but did not record a point. But the experience did give him some confidence that he could play at the NHL level.
“After I was up there those three weeks, I really felt like I could do it,” Ritola said. “(Coach Mike Babcock) put me out there on the power play and gave me a lot of chances and I felt like I can really do this. That means a lot for me when I’m coming into this training camp.”
Ritola is in a battle with several other forwards to make the team. Vice president and GM Ken Holland said the team plans to carry 14 forwards. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Todd Bertuzzi, Jiri Hudler, Mike Modano, Dan Cleary and Kris Draper are certain to fill 10 of those spots. Highly likely to earn spots are Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Patrick Eaves, leaving Ritola fighting Drew Miller for the final job.
“That’s the way it is every year,” Ritola said. “Everybody’s here to try to get a spot on the team. It’s going to be the same thing this year. Everybody’s going to do their best. They’re going to start the season with the best team so you have to do everything to be one of them.”
Ritola is out of options so he’d have to be exposed to waivers if he did not make the team. Holland said the youngster is still a work in progress.
“He’s getting better,” Holland said. “He’s 23 years of age. He’s got skill. He’s really good with the puck. He’s strong down low with the puck. I think the thing that he’s learning, the transition from Europe to North America, is to get to the front of the net. He’s got to understand that there’s times in the game when he needs to get either the puck to the front of the net or he needs to get to the front of the net. A lot of times he plays puck possession on the perimeter and it looks good but not enough happens offensively. He goes to the front of the net more today than he did two years ago and I think he’s going to go to the net more next year than he does this year. It’s a process. But he has good hands. He’s a big, thick guy, he’s hard to bounce around.”
Although Ritola is determined to not let things get to him, he is equally determined to show that he belongs on the Wings this year.
“Looking at paper, we’ve got an unbelievable team,” Ritola said. “Our third line could be the first line on every other team in the league pretty much. We’ve got a great team. I’m really excited to be here and we got a really good chance to win the Cup and that’s why I want to be a part of it.”
Miller, an incredible find off the waiver wire from Tampa Bay last season when the Wings were beset by injuries, is already making his case to be on the final roster.
The 26-year-old scored twice, including the overtime winner in Team Lindsay’s 5-4 scrimmage win over Team Delvecchio.
“It’s always a bonus to get goals in scrimmages but you just want to make sure you’re out there skating hard and showing that you want to be here,” Miller said.
In 66 games with the Wings last season, Miller excelled on the penalty kill while displaying more offensive ability than expected. He scored 10 goals and 19 assists and finished plus-2. In 12 playoff games, he had a goal and an assist and was also plus-2.
“I think the biggest thing was the staff and the players that helped you gain that confidence right away,” Miller said. “For me coming to a team off waivers, my confidence wasn’t the highest and you get here and they put you in situations to succeed and to build that confidence. I think that was a huge thing for me coming in last year and building off that. I’m going to ride that wave into this year and build off all the things I did last year and be a better player this year.”
That experience gives Miller an advantage over Ritola.
“Millsie is just a good skater and smart, good stick, played real well for us last year on the penalty kill,” Babcock said. “He’s a young guy getting better in his career.”
Regardless, Babcock made it clear that the real battle for jobs begins Wednesday with the first exhibition game in Pittsburgh.
“Whatever opportunity you get you try to make the most of it,” Miller said. “However many games they play me, hopefully the more the better, that gives me the opportunity to prove myself. I think they know what they’re going to get out of me on a nightly basis and I’m just trying to prove there’s more to my game than what I proved last year.”
Besides Miller, the other players who scored for Team Lindsay in the scrimmage were Todd Bertuzzi, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Archibald.
Team Delvecchio got goals from Brooks Macek, Darren Helm, Dan Cleary and Ilari Filppula.
Goaltender Chris Osgood had another strong showing for Team Lindsay, stopping 19 of the 20 shots he faced. Osgood has 34 saves in his two scrimmage periods.
“Real good today,” Babcock said. “Good for him, back to back good days. Anytime you’re coming off a year you weren’t in love with the way you played, it’s great to get off to a good start and he needs to have a good exhibition.”
Babcock announced that Osgood would start Wednesday’s exhibition game in Pittsburgh, playing two periods. He said Jimmy Howard would also play two periods in his first exhibition start.
The Wings sent 13 players to their junior teams Monday.
The forwards are Archibald, Louis-Marc Aubry, Mitchell Callahan, Landon Ferraro, Antonin Honejsek, Stephen Johnston, Macek and Andrej Nestrasil. The defensemen are Alex Cord, Gleason Fournier, Brenden Kichton and Marc Zanetti. The goaltender was Petr Mrazek.
There are 51 players remaining on the training camp roster.