The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t invent speedy, skill-centric hockey. They weren’t the first team to understand hockey is shifting away from the old school, traditional mindset of beating your opponent into submission en route to a championship. The Chicago Blackhawks implemented a similar philosophy on their way to three Stanley Cup titles in five years from 2010 to 2015 and the Tampa Bay Lightning — while falling just short of hockey’s ultimate prize — also deployed a team with very little focus on physicality and an abundance of skill in recent seasons. It’s a trend the Penguins adopted, not created, but there’s one major difference in how they approached it.
They were, without a doubt, 100-percent in.
The question of course — after back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships that didn’t include a full-time enforcer or physical presence — is whether or not Ryan Reaves will contribute to the Penguins in a meaningful way. And by meaningful, I’m not talking about leading the league in penalty minutes or fighting majors in order to ‘send a message’. Those days are gone in hockey, whether you like to admit it or not. Can he skate with this team? Can he chip in offensively? For the Penguins to make this work and prove that unloading prospect center Oskar Sundqvist, as well as dropping 20 spots in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft was worth the gamble, they need Reaves to fit in. Part of that will be how the coaching staff utilizes him but most of it rests on Reaves’ shoulders.
Ryan Reaves – The Player
The 6-foot-1, 224-pound winger has a total of 51 points (27 goals, 24 assists) through seven NHL seasons. He’s played 419 games in that span. His playing style and skillset provide little reason to expect more offensive production — at least, on the scoresheet — than what we’ve seen since he joined the St. Louis Blues in 2010 but that doesn’t mean he can’t chip in on a Penguins roster that already boasts plenty of scoring potential across the lineup.
Reaves is a very solid skater, unlike most prototypical enforcers in hockey. He doesn’t possess blistering speed, and he won’t win a foot race against most top-pairing defensemen but he’s certainly able to pressure opposing blue-liners on the forecheck. And trust me, no one wants to see Reaves barreling down on them as they retreat behind their own goal line to retrieve the puck. “I think he can skate. He can get to people. I think opponents are going to be well aware when he’s on the ice. They’ll be more inclined to make a play a little bit quicker.“, head coach Mike Sullivan told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Hopefully, he’s right.
Reaves seems intent on proving that he is.
Last season, Reaves tallied six fighting majors. He added 17 minor penalties and accrued a total of 104 penalty minutes, which ranked 12th in the NHL in 2016-17. A high-level view of Reaves’ infractions reflect a player that plays with an edge, but not to an extreme that puts his team at risk for an abundance of shorthanded situations. He would have finished behind both Evgeni Malkin and Ian Cole for minor penalties last season and his 17 visits to the sin bin — outside of his fights — would have tied Justin Schultz. Did you feel like Schultz was a liability due to his penalty time?
Yeah, me either.
Still, Reaves has plenty to prove. The enforcer is an endangered species and he’s looking to show everyone that with a little variation in training to focus on explosiveness and speed — he can turn himself into a viable forward that can contribute in today’s game. Personally, I’m optimistic.
Penguins are ‘On the Clock’
When the Penguins were due to make their first-round selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft — with the clock ticking down — they decided that adding NHL-caliber toughness was more fitting than selecting a young player that would ultimately head directly into their development system. That move sent a bit of a shockwave through the Penguins’ fan base with most wondering… Why?
It’s important to consider that first, the Penguins are right to address immediate needs — even if it means sacrificing a bit of the future — as they could very well be on the verge of three consecutive Stanley Cup titles. The Crosby and Malkin era won’t last forever, so strike while the irons hot and strike hard. But striking hard by adding fierce fists isn’t exactly what everyone had in mind and it almost seemed like Pittsburgh was abandoning the very mindset that made them so successful.
Now, they have to prove that isn’t the case.
When Tom Sestito signed with the Penguins, we heard a lot of the same lines regarding what he can bring to the table, though, there wasn’t an emphasis on his skating ability like Reaves. For good reason, of course. Sestito found himself in 13 regular season games at the NHL level and accrued 72 minutes of ice time, just 24 more than his total penalty minutes (48). That isn’t a good look for a team that prides itself on avoiding that garbage and playing to their mantra of ‘just play’. Especially his outing against the Winnipeg Jets in early March, when he recorded just over one minute of ice time but 20 penalty minutes. Should we expect more of the same with Reaves in the lineup?
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The answer to that question should — and most likely will — be a resounding no. Only time will tell, though. Unleashing Reaves when teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets are assaulting Crosby at the hands of Brandon Dubinsky is one thing. Falling back into the same old traditional pattern that you’ve escaped en route to becoming the cream of the NHL crop, well, that’s a whole different story. If the Penguins stay the course, Reaves will quickly become a fan favorite and asset on the ice. However, if they let themselves fall victim to the antics opponents have historically deployed against them in the Crosby era, it could mean a frustrated lineup and early playoff exits. We’ve seen that movie before with this core.
My guess is… Sullivan won’t let that happen.