Ryan Reaves has been nailed to the Pittsburgh Penguins bench just seven games into the new season. Reaves and a second-round pick were acquired from the St. Louis Blues for potential third line center Oskar Sundqvist and a first-round pick, which became skilled winger Klim Kostin.
Reaves played just 3:20, Tuesday night against the New York Rangers. He played over seven minutes, Saturday against Florida, but just three minutes in the game prior, against Tampa Bay.
Three minutes is the ice time more fitting of a goon or, to use the parlance of our times, someone “not good at hockey”. Reaves is better than that. The price for Reaves was much steeper than a knuckle dragger whose sole purpose is to smack opponents over the head.
So, it is a curious decision by head coach Mike Sullivan to bench Reaves. In fairness, Reaves took a silly holding penalty in the second period against Tampa Bay. That penalty cemented Reaves pine time.
Low stakes October hockey–the first 10 to 15 games of the season are the time for experiments–like Reaves on the penalty killing unit. Reaves saw work as a penalty killer in the preseason. Reaves speed and unique physicality could lend itself to being effective while shorthanded.
With the spate of stick penalties across the NHL, there has been ample opportunity to give Reaves work. Reaves’ linemate, Tom Kuhnhackl has averaged more than 10 minutes per game.
It is a curious decision by Sullivan. On October 7, Reaves played an electrifying game in the Penguins Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Nashville Predators. Reaves beat down Nashville tough guys Austin Watson and Cody McLeod. In between, Reaves deflected an Olli Maatta shot for his first goal as a Penguin. Later, Reaves took shifts beside Sidney Crosby as the game got chippy.
The game featured everything for which Jim Rutherford acquired the big man.
Ryan Reaves was NOT Acquired to be a Fighter
Playing just a few minutes in a low stakes game is not why Reaves was acquired (He was NOT acquired to be a fighter, not matter what the folks who like to yell “shoot!” say), nor will playing only a few minutes aid Reaves quest to add layers to his game.
If Reaves will only play three minutes, is not Scott Wilson a better choice for the line-up? Is Reaves in Sullivan’s doghouse? Did Rutherford make a huge mistake by trading for Reaves?
Fighting isn’t necessary to win a Stanley Cup, as most recent teams have proven. The Penguins have also shown the ability to hit back isn’t a necessity, either. However, the ability to respond to a beating from an angry opponent or cheap shots administered by opponents looking for an edge can raise a team’s spirits.
The ability to respond lifts a team’s confidence as much or more than it prevents offenders. Reaves was acquired because the Penguins had no one to provide push-back against aggressive teams, such as Columbus, such as the beating Dion Phaneuf administered to Evgeni Malkin in the Eastern Conference Final, and such as the dastardly Washington Capitals Tom Wilson.
Reaves is the answer to the above, and he has hockey talent including speed.
Wednesday, Rutherford took the opportunity on the Penguins flagship radio station, 105.9 the X, to explain his decision to acquire Reaves–it’s important to defend your star players. Unfortunately, that was only part of the rationale given when Reaves was acquired.
However, Sullivan has currently reduced Reaves to the enforcer role. If Reaves isn’t good enough to earn more ice time, the Penguins made a colossal mistake. Kostin wowed at the Blues training camp and has the St. Louis organizaiton anxiously awaiting his NHL arrival (he’s currently marinating in the AHL). If Sullivan minimizes Reaves role to enforcer, soon even that will not exist. A three-minute player won’t deter anything.
Referees do not treat goons kindly. They are typically whistled for penalties and watched carefully because their mere presence means trouble is brewing.
Reaves is better than that. It’s an inexplicable mistake to keep him on the bench, now. If he failed to fit into the line-up, 20 or 30 games into the season, it would be a wise call. However, now is the time to allow Reaves to gel into the new situation and role. And gel with his linemates.
That role wasn’t supposed to include, nor should it include, more seat time than a long haul trucker. If the trend continues, that would invalidate the primary purpose of the trade and make it even more difficult to protect the stars.