CRANBERRY TWP. — The NHL player code seems to be eroding in the modern game as penalty minutes and goals scored are rising across the league. However, the Penguins believe having a tough guy, especially Ryan Reaves, on the team remains a roster spot well filled.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” defenseman Kris Letang said Wednesday following practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in preparation for tonight’s game against the New York Islanders at PPG Paints Arena. “You need that guy who brings a physical presence, a guy willing to drop the gloves when the time comes. It’s still an important part of the game.”
Reaves easily leads the Penguins with 73 penalty minutes. That is more than double the 32 amassed by Sidney Crosby, who ranks second. Reaves is also second in the NHL, just behind Derek Dorsett’s 74 minutes. Dorsett was forced to retire from the Vancouver Canucks two weeks ago because of a cervical disc herniation.
Reaves understands the reasoning behind the NHL wanting to cut down on fighting and having officials call games closer. Yet, because of the physical and emotional nature of the sport, he believes fighting will never vanish entirely.
“If someone takes a run at one out our top guys, I’m going got take a run at their top guy or somebody on their team,” Reaves said. “You always notice when guys go after guys, and your instinct is always going to be to try to do something about it in some way. That’s hockey.”
Reaves then added a kicker.
“You’ve got to learn to do it in a bit of a different way now, make sure it’s legal and not put your team down even more,” he said. “They’ve put rules in play to attempt to prevent certain incidents from occurring. There is always a way around it, though, I guess you could say.”
One of those ways is understanding what is within the limits of the rules. An eight-year veteran, Reeves believes he has a better grasp of that and pointed out he has been suspended only once in his career.
“I haven’t changed the way I play,” Reeves said. “I think I’ve learned to be able to play physical without taking a lot of those bad penalties that cost the team. That’s the only big change for me.
“Fights are downs across the league. Those days of just lining up and saying, “let’s go” are gone. As far as physical play, I still bring that every day. That’s never going to change. That’s who I am as a player.”
Penguins Bold Move
The Penguins made it clear why they were willing to trade their first-round draft pick in the summer.
General manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan wanted an enforcer. Though the Penguins had just won their second straight Stanley Cup, there was a need for a physical forward who would make opponents think twice before to take cheap shots at stars like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel.
The Penguins identified Reaves as a good fit. So, they sent the first-round pick along with center Oscar Sundqvist to the Blues for Reaves and St. Louis’ second-round selection.
The move raised some eyebrows in an era when the NHL has clamped down on fighting — and physical play in general — for fear of players suffering concussions and other serious injuries.
Ryan Reaves is Not is a Cement-Headed Goon
In fact, the good-natured 30-year-old has smoothly blended into the locker room with his big smile and sharp sense of humor. Reaves likes to use that personality on the ice, too, not only by encouraging his teammates but antagonizing opponents by smiling while scrapping with them.
“He has good speed, really good speed for a big guy,” Letang said of the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder. “He’s an energy guy, too, not just because he’s physical but because he can also make things happen with his speed. He just brings energy every day. He is a guy who enjoys life, and it’s always good to have guys like that around.”
Reaves has only one goal and three points in 29 games this season and has found the back of the net just 28 times during his career. Furthermore, he is minus-6 so far in 2017-18 with a 46.5 Corsi percentage.
The goal came two months ago on Oct. 7 in a win over the Nashville Predators. However, Reaves nearly broke that drought Tuesday night in a 4-3 loss to the visiting New York Rangers as he hit a post with one shot and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec got a piece of another to keep it from going in the net.
Sullivan believes Reaves is ready to make more of an offensive contribution.
“He’s not just a one-way player,” Sullivan said. “He is capable of playing well on both ends, and he has been doing that. He’s played well for us.”
John Perrotto, a long-time reporter for the Beaver County Times and Fan Rag Sports, is now part the Pittsburgh Hockey Now team. In addition to being a baseball reporter for USA Today, John will be covering the Penguins for PHN. Please follow him on Twitter @JPerrotto