DETROIT – You look at the entire package – a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder who can play both ends of the ice, hit, block shots, kill penalties and provide a decent modicum of offense – and you wonder to yourself, “Why the heck did it take Ryan Graves 250 games in the American League and two organizations to establish himself as an NHL player?”
Because not all paths are linear, especially when it comes to playing defense in the best league in the world. Not everyone can be Cale Makar or Quinn Hughes. Sometimes, it takes players a little more time to get it and once they do, they become invaluable. That is basically what has happened with Ryan Graves, one of the most stunning revelations in the NHL this season. At the age of 24, Graves has established himself as a very reliable NHLer and is proving to be much, much more than just Makar’s tag-along defense partner.
Of course, playing with Makar certainly hasn’t hurt his game, nor has the fact that playing with Makar 5-on-5 also often finds him on the ice with the Avalanche’s most talented forwards. That’s part of the reason why Graves leads the NHL in plus-minus at plus-44. But you have to earn your way into those situations and Graves has done just that this season.
“My goal coming into this season was basically just to crack the top six or seven,” Graves said. “That’s where I was slotted in last year. Then you make new goals. It’s been really good. I’ve had a lot of support working through the ups and downs and trying to find a consistent game.”
And the pairing with Makar, a frontrunner for rookie-of-the-year honors who has come completely as advertised for the Avalanche, has been a game-changer, both for Graves and the Avalanche. Graves shoots left, Makar right. Graves takes care of things defensively, which gives a lot more leeway for Makar to join the rush and take chances offensively. Graves is a huge physical presence, Makar is not.
“I think part of me says that’s a perfect scenario,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar. “I consider both pretty good offensively. But a shutdown guy that puts a lot of importance on his defensive game, and he wants to be there both 5-on-5 and the penalty-kill. I think there’s pretty good communication out of them as a tandem, too. So, yeah, I like the fact that they’re going to be able to work and grow together. And we’ve mixed them up at times during the year, but I think for the most part they’ve been really consistent for us and pretty steady back there.”
The development curve, though, has been a long one for Graves, who was originally drafted by the New York Rangers and spent two and a half seasons in the organizations without getting a sniff of the NHL before being dealt for Chris Bigras on trade deadline day in 2018. It was one of those transactions that was a footnote on a busy day of deals, but another one of those understated Joe Sakic swaps that has been a massive steal in favor of Colorado. It’s not as though the potential wasn’t there. Graves was on the Memorial Cup all-star team in 2015 and played in the AHL All-Star Game as a rookie the next season.
“My game is pretty quiet,” Graves said. But it’s clearly getting louder in Colorado after leaving the Rangers organization. Graves said Greg Cronin, who coaches the Avalanche’s AHL team, has been a boon to his game. “There have a few little tweaks that have helped me as a player, but it’s not like the skills have changed or I’ve gotten bigger or stronger or faster. It’s just a matter of learning my game and playing to my strengths.”
The result is a much more confident and poised player who has put himself in a really good position for a big pay raise next season. Prior to this season, Graves essentially bet on himself by signing a one-year, two-way contract worth $735,000 that would have seen him make $350,000 in the minors. That makes him a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer. Plus-minus is viewed as a flawed statistic in arbitration, but Graves also leads the Avalanche in shorthanded ice time and blocked shots and is second behind Nikita Zadorov in hits. So he has likely made a pretty good case for himself. The only two problems for Graves are a lack of experience and a lack of comparables. But Marcus Pettersson, who signed a five-year extension with the Pittsburgh Penguins that carries a cap hit of just over $4 million for five years when it kicks in next season, is a decent place to start.
Regardless, the pairing with Makar presents some very intriguing possibilities. “He’s easy to play with,” Graves said of Makar. “A lot of times I just snap it over to him and he makes things happen. He’ll shimmy a guy at the blue line and do his open hip thing and away he goes. I think he makes me look good.”
Ryan Graves is also doing a pretty good job of that on his own this season.
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