The 2005 NHL Draft saw star players like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang enter the league. Even the last pick of the draft, Patric Hornqvist, became a career NHL player. Needless to say, there were a lot of great picks, throughout every round. In the fifth round, the St. Louis Blues made their fourth pick of the draft. They selected a moderately sized right-winger from the WHL, Ryan Reaves.
He was pretty unproductive in his 2004-05 WHL season leading up to the draft, but he did an amazing job padding one of his stats: his penalty minutes. His totals always hovered around the middle of the WHL but were the clear statistical highlight of his play.
Reaves was mainly picked in the draft because of his physical and aggressive play, the same play that led him to high penalty minutes every year. This skillset has helped him to a long NHL career, featuring over 500 games. He was one of the last players picked in 2005 to become an NHL mainstay, and each game is another step in the continuing Ryan Reaves experiment.
The Ryan Reaves Experiment is Finally Paying Off, After 14 Years.
History of the Experiment
Reaves wasn’t a top priority in the Blues system. After being drafted, he finished his three-year career in the WHL then saw increasingly growing time in the Blues AHL system, with the Peoria Rivermen. The 2007-08 season was his first at the professional level. He started the year with the Alaska Aces of the ECHL. Right out of the gate, Reaves established himself as a rough-and-tough grinder. He had an unbelievable 42 penalty minutes in only nine ECHL games with the Aces that season. When he returned for the ECHL playoffs later in the year, Reaves had an even crazier 22 penalty minutes in only two games. This clearly established his playstyle. He also tallied up 46 penalty minutes in 31 AHL games that year and it was clear which way stat he’d favour moving forward.
As expected, his penalty minutes shot up when he played 26 more AHL games in the 2008-09 season. He recorded 130 penalty minutes that year, and 167 the following season in 76 games. His high penalty minutes began to define the Rivermen. He was accompanied by players like Eric Neilson and Danny Richmond during his later years in Peoria. They too racked up hundreds of penalty minutes and the team’s grit and physical play led them to an annoying, winning record every year Reaves was there.
First Year in the NHL
The Blues called up Reaves in November of 2010, officially giving him his first NHL game. He stayed in St. Louis for 12 days before returning to the Rivermen. The rest of that season, he split time between the AHL and NHL. In 78 combined games between the two leagues that year, Reaves spent 224 minutes in the sin-bin. Of those 224 minutes, 78 came while he was wearing the Blues logo. He racked up these penalties in only 28 games, an average of 2.79 a game. This is, and likely always will be his highest career average.
The Other Side of His Game
Reaves’ penalty minutes alone have been enough to establish him as one of the top grinders in the league. He’s also been one of the leaders in the league in terms of fighting majors for most of his career. In his rookie season, despite only playing 28 games, Reaves had eight fights. This was a much higher average than anyone else in the league at the time, leading to Reaves quickly becoming known as a bit of a bully on the ice. In short, he was clearly brought into the NHL to be an enforcer.
The issue is, the league was quickly disposing of many of its enforcers. The gritty and physical playing style that was prevalent since the league started has made the role irrelevant. Now, speed and skill dominate the league. Stars like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews have made the league much less reliant on players like Reaves. If a player can’t stand up for themselves, they’re likely quick enough to avoid any confrontations. As a result, many players in Reaves’ situation were quickly losing their jobs, in favour of the younger and faster forwards.
Because of this, there has been a continuing effort, by many of his coaches, to turn Reaves into more than just a grinder. This has slowly become what I’m dubbing the Ryan Reaves experiment.
History of the Experiment
St. Louis Blues
The experiment was sparked by Ken Hitchcock during the 2013-14 season. In St. Louis, the coaching staff had a lot of faith in Reaves, attracted by his all-out effort in every shift he had and strong work ethic. As a result, Reaves began to see more-and-more ice time as the year went on. During that year, Reaves played in seven games of over 10 and a half minutes of ice time, more than he had in any season prior.
His average ice time ultimately jumped up by an entire minute and four seconds from the year prior, going from 7:27 to 8:31. He set a career high of eight points in 63 games in 2013-14, two points more than in the 2012-13 season. It still wasn’t nearly enough production but there was a clear positive to increasing his ice time. The Blues matched Reaves’ 8:31 average during the 2014-15 season and he, again, proved he deserved more minutes by setting another career high of 12 points.
His ice time and points decreased the next year, before again spiking to a career high in both categories in 2016-17. Throughout this whole four-season stretch of the experiment, his penalty minutes declined from 126 to 94, reaching a maximum-low when he got 68 in the 2015-16 year. This was a promising start to the experiment. He was showing up more on the score sheet and less in the penalty box.
It all went to show one thing, Reaves had more to offer besides being a beat-em-up grinder. While he never scored as much as a typical bottom-six forward in the NHL, he showed clear value with his work-ethic and aggression outside of fights. As 2016-17 came to an end, Reaves’ style of play had taken a considerable change.
During the 2017 NHL Draft, the experiment took a major hiatus. Reaves was the main part of a trade that sent him, along with a second-round pick, to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Blues, in exchange, received Oskar Sundqvist and a first-round pick that was used to pick top-Russian prospect, Klim Kostin.
The deal was great for the Blues, exchanging a bottom-six player for two potential top-six players. The Penguins were also fairly happy with it. In their eyes, they had just received one of the best fighters in the league; the most competent player to protect stars like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They, seemingly, wanted to go old-school as they pursued a third consecutive Stanley Cup. Trading for Reaves was the best way to do this.
Time in Pittsburgh
With the Penguins, Reaves was used perfectly in this role. He went from progressively working up the Blues lineup to being a classic enforcer in Pittsburgh. During his time with the 2017-18 Penguins, Reaves only averaged a mere 6:45 in ice time. This was his lowest average since his sophomore season, six years prior. On the flip side, he averaged his highest penalty minutes per game since the 2013-14 season.
Reaves wasn’t phased by the new team’s intentions with him. In the severely decreased ice time, he still managed to score eight points in the 58 games he played with Pittsburgh. This put him on pace to again record double-digit point totals, something he had only done in two of his prior seasons.
Vegas Golden Knights
In a bit of a surprise for onlookers, Pittsburgh dealt away Reaves during the 2017 trade deadline. He was apart of an awkward three-team trade that ultimately landed Pittsburgh Derick Brassard. In the deal, Reaves ended up going to the Vegas Golden Knights, finishing off the year with the inaugural team.
The rest of the year was fairly uneventful for Reaves statistically. He netted a total of four points with Vegas between 21 regular season games and 10 playoff games through the rest of the 2017-18 season. The one notable stat was his ice time. He was playing a career high of 9:55 a game during the last few games of the season. While his ice time dropped to a much more modest 8:13 average during the playoffs, the increased ice time in the regular season was a sign of things to come.
This season has been drastically different from any other year for Reaves. While he’s still one of the toughest and scariest players in the league; he’s become much more productive on a game-to-game basis. He’s netted 12 points in 39 games so far, only one short of the career high he set in 80 games, three seasons ago. His average ice time has also shot back up, showing the value that the Golden Knights place in him. He now plays an average of 11:36 each game. This amount of ice time would’ve seemed insane just a few years ago, but Reaves has clearly earned the increased minutes.
He’s even currently averaging the second lowest penalty-minutes-per-game of his career. His 47 minutes is still highest on the team, but it goes to show the very strong turnaround that Reaves has made in his play-style. The Golden Knights, in 62 combined regular season games, has significantly advanced the work that Ken Hitchcock and the St. Louis Blues had done years before.
Overview of the Experiment
Reaves is 32 and finally hitting the breakout he deserves, even if it’s just been a modest 12 points so far. He’s looked considerably more productive and diligent on the ice, something that Hitchcock repeatedly instilled in him during his tenure in St. Louis.
The player who came into the league as a strict fighter has developed into a strong middle-of-the-lineup winger. Reaves’ intense hustle and aggression have turned him into a bit of a threat on the ice. No, he isn’t an All-Star calibre player by any means, but the progression of Reaves’ game through his nine NHL seasons has been very noteworthy.
Players like John Scott and Brian McGrattan haven’t been able to go through the same transformations and were phased out by the league as a result, despite coming into the league around the same time as Reaves. Now, he’s completely separate from these players. He does have a bit more work to put in, working on his skating and offensive prowess, but Vegas seems to be the best place to do just that.
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