CRANBERRY — The Pittsburgh Penguins signed Ryan Graves to a six-year, $27 million contract last July because they projected him as a solid top-four defenseman.
He spent much of the first half of this season showing that they might just have overestimated him.
Graves eventually was demoted to the No. 3 pairing this month, but what seemed like the low point in his season might actually have been a turning point, because he almost immediately began to elevate his performance.
“I think it’s been good, the last handful of games,” Graves said Sunday. “I think I’ve found consistency the last few games.”
Indeed, he has lifted his play to a level that prompted coach Mike Sullivan to bump him back up to the second pairing, alongside Erik Karlsson, during the Penguins’ 15-minute practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex Sunday.
That’s where Sullivan is expected to deploy Graves when the Penguins face Seattle Monday at 1:08 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.
“We’re trying to reward guys with opportunity when they gain some traction in their game,” Sullivan said. “We think (Graves) has played pretty well, as of late. That’s part of the reason we made that adjustment today.”
P.O Joseph, who had been Karlsson’s partner in recent games, returned to his previous spot alongside Chad Ruhwedel during Sunday’s workout.
Graves’ defense-oriented style is a more natural complement to Karlsson that than of Joseph, who has a more offensive bent.
Graves, though, said he does not alter his game to adapt to working alongside Karlsson, rather than Ruhwedel, even though Ruhwedel does not have anything resembling Karlsson’s offensive instincts, abilities or inclinations.
“My game needs to be the exact same,” Graves said. “When you play with someone like Chad, who’s kind of similar to yourself — simple and plays hard, just tries to be good defensively — it’s a very similar mindset to myself. It’s reminds you of how you’re supposed to play.
“If I try to play like (Karlsson) or (Kris Letang), I’m not going to have much success. You need to be yourself when you play with guys like that, and it can allow them to be themselves, as well, and that can bring out the best in both of you. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Karlsson (7) and Letang (3) have accounted for 10 of the 14 goals Penguins defensemen scored during the first half of this season. Graves is third on that list with two, but scoring goals is not what the Penguins expect from him,
He is counted on to be defensively responsible so that his partner, whether it’s Karlsson or Letang, has the latitude to get involved in the offense when the opportunity arises, without worrying about whether joining a rush will leave the Penguins’ vulnerable at the other end of the ice.
If Graves can fill that niche effectively, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ prospects of climbing back into an Eastern Conference playoff berth during the second half should be greatly enhanced. And he seems to recognize the importance of the role he will be called upon to fill.
“The strength of the group is in yourself,” Graves said. “So you want to be at your best to help the group.”