The game was not yet a minute old when Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson accelerated past Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ryan Graves on the right wing.
The space that Wilson created beyond Graves’s reach allowed him to whip a shot past Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry from the right circle.
Midway through the first period, Beck Malenstyn took Graves wide on the left flank toward the Penguins net. Graves lunged to break up Malenstyn’s centering pass, but the puck instead changed course and fluttered over Jarry’s shoulder.
“The second one is a crazy bounce. It can happen 100 times and it wouldn’t happen (like that) again. But at the same time, there’s things you can do,” Graved admitted. “You can poke it earlier, There are various ways to avoid situations like that. You can look at it as a bounce, but at the same time you can look at it as you need to be a little closer so it doesn’t end like that.”
In the final minute of the first period, Washington scored their fourth goal on the power play with Alex Ovechkin’s floating wrist shot from near the blue line. In a net-front battle, Graves lost himself and stepped in front of goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, creating a perfect screen for the puck to zip past Nedeljkovic.
The deficit and the Penguins lost 4-3 at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday.
On paper, Graves’s numbers are not bad. He’s got five points (1-4-5) and is a plus-9. However, not even Graves says he’s playing well. He hasn’t expressed frustration, but he’s owned his unsteady play.
“There’s no pity party is going on. You don’t want to say, ‘Oh, it’s your stick. It’s bad bounce. It shouldn’t happen. Poor Me.’ Like, it’s hockey, it happens,” said Graves. “It’s a game of mistakes. And you need to find ways to stay in games and to claw back once back into it.”
First, a hat tip to Graves for staying in the room to face the postgame media. He could have quickly bolted, leaving behind the uncomfortable questions and the greater implications. That he stayed to face the questions probably says a lot about the player and person.
He’s had issues, bumps, and bobbles this season. He’s been caught out of position or trying to do too much. He’s made mistakes and talked openly about the adjustment to coach Mike Sullivan’s system and the arduous journey.
Graves was in the eye of the storm Tuesday. When a player is in the storm, the puck and problems stick close.
Arduous to adventuresome, and just when it seemed to be coming together, Graves had his worst game of the season. Three direct goals against.
His goalie could have bailed him out of at least one, but those are the breaks when you’re in the quicksand.
Sullivan didn’t steer away from the laundry list of things he expects from Graves but isn’t currently getting, either.
“We’re going to work with him and try to see what we can do to keep his game simple. I think that’s when he’s at his best — when he just defends hard and controls the net-front,” Sullivan said. “I think he can use his body a little bit more than he’s doing right now. That’s something that we’ve talked to him about. He’s got a long reach. I think we can try to help him just understand how to utilize his reach a little bit more and that will help him adjust on the defensive side.”
By the second period on Tuesday, coaches dropped Graves to the third pairing with Chad Ruhwedel so he could play sheltered minutes and take some pressure off the defenseman.
The first period seemed a culmination of Graves’s season of teetering struggles. Not only has Graves been dropped into a system he finds to be a foreign language, he’s played with a couple of the best defensemen of this generation, Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang.
Both, but especially Karlsson, like to play a freelancing game and need their partner to cover when things go awry. Thus far, the immersion therapy hasn’t been successful.
“It’s been a bit of a struggle for him. We’re just to find ways to get him going. He’s obviously a quality defenseman and we’re going to rely on him here moving forward,” said Sullivan. “We’ve tried him with different people. We had him with (Letang), now we’ve got him with (Erik Karlsson). We’ve moved him around a little bit. I think sometimes when a player comes to a new team, there’s an adjustment process. Some guys handle it better than others. It’s hard to predict that when guys come in, and I think I think Graves is a guy that’s trying to find his way right now.”
The Penguins’ choices are limited. After a few moves on Tuesday to activate winger Bryan Rust from the long-term injury list, the Penguins have only $200,000 in salary cap space. That’s far too little to call-up a player or add another via trade without sending out an equal salary.
The NHL trade market is again logjammed as GMs fed their spending addiction last July and too few have salary cap space to deal.
The Penguins’ best solution might have been deployed in the second and third periods on Tuesday.
Graves slid to the third pairing with Chad Ruhwedel. There isn’t a Penguins d-man who keeps simpler than Ruhwedel. Right spot. Right time. All the time.
Generously, the third pairing generally gets lower-pressure assignments by virtue of avoiding the top players on the other team.
However, such a move would change the dynamics of the Penguins blue line. Would P.O Joseph, who was solid if unspectacular Tuesday, stay in the lineup to skate beside Karlsson? He did pretty well, as his high-grade skating allowed him to cover Karlsson’s aggressive decisions.
Would John Ludvig, who was an injured scratch Tuesday, take the second pair with Karlsson, or slide to the right side with Graves, bumping Ruhwedel to the press box?
In theory, a Graves-Ludvig pairing would be a sandpaper duo, though Graves would need to elevate that part of his game, which has withered in his struggles.
While many fans want to launch Ryan Graves into the sun (an expression that became hockey lexicon courtesy of Chicago writer Mark Lazerus’s long ago viral tweet on Chicago fans turning on their Stanley Cup core), it’s not feasible to cut ties with Graves.
You don’t get a mulligan on a six-year contract.
Sullivan and associate coach Todd Reirden have choices, though not necessarily guaranteed fixes.