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Dubas Stops Just Short of Ripping Ryan Graves, ‘System Isn’t Excuse’

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan Graves

CRANBERRY—Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas noticeably grimaced when asked about defenseman Ryan Graves.

Dubas held his season-ending press conference Friday at the UPMC Lemieux Complex, wrapping what he admitted was a roller coaster season with several sections that bore no resemblance to the previous. One of the sore spots of the season was Graves, whom Dubas signed to a healthy six-year, $27 million contract last July.

Dubas stopped short of ripping the defenseman who was supposed to counter-balance Erik Karlsson or Kris Letang, but he came close.

“There’s no dancing around it. He was a very good player in Colorado and New Jersey, and they are both very good teams. Came in, and from the beginning, I thought … It happens,” Dubas said, nodding to allude to the poor fit and performance. “Did I expect it to go the whole year? No. I think part of that is on us as an organization. It’s as much on Ryan to push and find his way through this summer. And it’s a massive summer for him.”

Dubas didn’t define what he meant by massive summer, but he didn’t have to. The implication was clear: Graves must improve or set in motion a chain of potential actions, such as scratches, demotion, or trades.

Graves, 28, never found his place with the Penguins. He was shuffled around the blue line as coaches tried to find a place for him. He was even a healthy scratch. Graves suffered a concussion before the start of the Penguin’s 8-1-3 season-ending run, playing his final game of the season on March 28.

There was a noticeable difference, even with the sometimes inconspicuous Ryan Shea on the third pair with Jack St. Ivany.

Trying to untangle advanced metrics for defensemen can be a fool’s errand. Situations and teammates play an important role, but since Graves played with everyone in all situations, we can get a broad sense of the tangible effects.

When Graves was with Kris Letang (over 440 minutes), the pair saw 50% of the scoring chances and 50% of the high-danger chances, with a slightly positive goals-for ratio (17-14).

With Erik Karlsson (380 minutes), the numbers dipped to 49% of the scoring chances and 52% of the high-danger chances but an abysmal 7-12 goal ratio.

With Chad Ruhwedel on the third pair (174 minutes), the scoring chances were a horrid 42%, but the high danger chance rate was 49%, and a 10-8 goals mark.

Graves marks were slightly but noticeably lower than Letang’s numbers with Marcus Pettersson, especially on goals (32-24), and way behind Karlsson’s goal differential with Pettersson (48-37).

All stats are according to NaturalStatTrick.com.

Graves’s ratios in the top four were also well below P.O Joseph’s work with Letang and Karlsson.

Dubas laid out the substantial list of qualities Graves needs to improve. Further underscoring his unhappiness, Dubas’s list was as heavy as it was long.

“(He needs to work on) his strength, which will allow him to be more physical and make stops in that defensive zone. (Work on) his mobility, as he gets to be 29 to start next year, he’s going to have to really push and work on that,” said Dubas. “But we have to arm him with the path to get there. And then he has to execute it relentlessly. If he can do that, he’s going to get back to being the player that he was when we signed him. But it’s going to be up to him in the summer to execute that and come into camp and be ready to roll.”

So, Graves needs to get stronger and faster and work on defending better in the defensive zone.

Is that all?

Options for Next Season

Trades are much easier in the electronic world and on social media. As Dubas noted, Graves was a good defenseman with the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils.

Is there a market for a soon-to-be-29-year-old defenseman who had an abysmal year with the Penguins’ system, which is less rigid and more trusting of its players?

Probably not. So, the onus is on Graves.

“One of the better parts of this job is when you have people that are in those spots, you have to help them, but then they pull their way through and climb their way out. And so that’s that’s my expectation,” said Dubas. “But I don’t think it’s system-related. I think it’s professional athletics. You have to adapt after 70 games. So I think you have to adapt much quicker than that. But I think once it gets past a short stretch, the system isn’t an excuse.

Even with a rising salary cap, who would take a defenseman with five more years on a contract who improved his team by not playing? Harsh but true.

Since it has been floated, a buyout would be wildly unlikely. The Penguins are still paying Jack Johnson, and they would be on the hook for $750,000 for 10 years. Realize how many life cycles the Penguins will go through between now and 2034. Yes, 2034.

Though in 10 years, Crosby will be 46 and about as old as Jaromir Jagr’s last stint in the NHL.

Unless Dubas has inside knowledge of a giant meteor headed our way, a buyout seems unwise, and no part of Dubas’s answer hinted that would be a consideration.

There’s always the Wade Redden treatment. The New York Rangers paid the D-man a lot of money to leave the Ottawa Senators for 2008-09, then regretted it. Beginning in 2010, they buried him in the AHL for the next two years. Should coach Mike Sullivan and Dubas determine that Graves is not part of their seven best defensemen next season, the Penguins can bury Graves in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, saving $1.15 million per season from his $4.5 million average annual value.

Or, Graves can follow the Penguins’ instructions and get stronger, improve his skating and defending to play with the Penguins.

It’s on him to elevate the core tenants of his job or suffer the results. Even under the slightly sugarcoated answer, Dubas made that clear.