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Penguins Go Big, Ryan Graves Knows Unspoken Tough Role



Ryan Graves, Pittsburgh Penguins

Since the Pittsburgh Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup, only two defensemen have added more size to the Penguins’ blue-line corps than newly signed Ryan Graves.

A few hours into the NHL free agent frenzy on July 1, the Penguins signed Graves to a six-year, $27 million contract. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound defenseman is outsized in the last 13 years only by former defenseman Jamie Oleksiak (6-foot-7, 255 pounds) and Erik Gudbranson (6-foot-5, 222 pounds). The 6-foot-7 Hal Gill was the d-man on the 2009 Stanley Cup team.

That’s not a long list of big defensemen, and Graves, who is a Nova Scotia native-like Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, could be tasked with filling big shoes as the heir-apparent to long-time top-pairing defenseman and Kris Letang-partner Brian Dumoulin.

“That’s kind of where I will slot in … I am definitely more of a defensive mindset,” Graves said Tuesday. “I try to play a two-way game, but the emphasis on my game is to play defensively and the penalty kill and just playing against top lines. So I do gel usually well with a player that is good offensively, and we can play off each other.”

After struggling through last season, the 31-year-old Dumoulin signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Seattle Kraken.

Graves, 27, was both tasked with joining an emerging and successful team when he joined the Colorado Avalanche in 2018-19 after four years in the AHL, and he started on the ground floor of a rebuild when he arrived with New Jersey Devils, who finished with the fifth-worst record in the 2021-22 season.

Last season, New Jersey competed for the Metro Division crown until the final week. But he hasn’t been the new guy on a fully established team before.

“(Colorado) had a lot of veteran presence with younger guys trying to find their way and myself being one of the young guys. So that was a really good way to get into the league and kind of learn from older guys in a young, fun environment,” said Graves. “And then New Jersey, we were so young, it was hard to believe we were as good as we were, but it made for a fun year. It’ll be a big change going to a team like Pittsburgh with such respected veterans.”

With the size and temperament of a stay-home defender, Graves is under no illusions that he was signed to become an offensive defenseman. The Penguins have Kris Letang and Jeff Petry for that. They may add Erik Karlsson this summer or have at least tried to do so.

The Penguins’ net front has for too long been a campsite for opponents. Quarter has been given, and goals have been scored. More than a few leads have been lost.

If there is one statistic to circle to illustrate the 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins foibles, it would be the third most lost leads in the NHL (22) and a staggering nine losses (including four OT losses) when leading after two periods.

Someone to keep the blue paint clear and the goalies unobstructed in the final minutes would go a long way to getting a few of those wins back. The Penguins’ 16-year playoff streak would have continued with just one more win.

“Once (the Penguins) reached out, and they’re interested, I think you know what your role is going to be,” Graves said. “I slide in the hole that Dumoulin left as a steady defenseman that can play in the top four and then can play tough minutes against top lines. When they reach out and they’re interested, I think they know what they’re getting. So it’s unspoken what you’re expected to do.”

On that front, literally and figuratively, the Penguins’ addition is no small addition.