After last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins felt they were the recipients of too much illegal physical play, in addition to legal attempts to grind them into hockey pulp. They surrendered their first round choice to St. Louis to acquire Ryan Reaves in an attempt to level the playing field.
Has it worked? Is the price worth the negatives, specifically Reaves lack of puck skills and lack of offensive production? Reaves has just five points (2g, 3a), averages only .56 shots per game and has a negative Corsi and averages under seven minutes of ice time per game.
First, yes, Reaves has protected Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The eye test indicates Reaves provides the desired effect. Crosby and Malkin have not yet been the target of an ugly incident this season. Cheap shots and blatant use of hockey’s dark arts seems far less than the last couple years.
For example, the Penguins biggest tormentor, over the past two years, has been the Columbus Blue Jackets. Over two December games, it was Crosby and Malkin who were the aggressors leading to two scraps (Malkin fought Folino, while Crosby was assessed a double minor for battling Seth Jones).
What About the Numbers?
Do the numbers show Reaves presence is helping? Marginally.
Through 44 games last season, Crosby was the “victim” of three “violent” penalties (one slash, one cross check, and one high-sticking). This season, counting the coincidental double minor roughing calls Crosby and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones received for their wrestling match on December 21 (but Crosby was the aggressor), Crosby has suffered five “violent” infractions.
Factoring in the crackdown on slashing, even that call is subjectively violent. Two of the five hard penalties drawn by Crosby have been slashes which weren’t penalties last season. So, that’s a wash.
Malkin’s differential is stark. Counting his shoving match with frisky winger Patrick Laine and Malkin’s decision to drop the gloves with Blue Jackets (then) top center Nick Foligno, Malkin has drawn four “violent” calls, this season.
Last season, Malkin had already drawn seven such calls, and none coincidental.
One may read the Malkin difference that teams are not attempting to goad Malkin into cheap retaliatory penalties.
And, a 26% power-play helps, too.
Does Ryan Reaves Deserve a Sweater?
The answer seems obvious. Yes, Ryan Reaves has a place on the team.
No, Reaves does not deserve a sweater on many nights, if the Penguins have a healthy alternative. Reaves is an ideal 13th forward to draw in against physical opponents or Metropolitan Division opponents against whom the Penguins may want to send a message.
The recent competence of the Penguins fourth line, anchored by Riley Sheahan, should be replicable with other right wings. Tom Kuhnhackl, Sheahan and Reaves have each scored a goal over the past four games, but it is a hard case to make that Reaves is a driving force.
When Bryan Rust eventually returns to the lineup, the Penguins could create a fast, tenacious fourth line with Rust on the right side, which would reinforce their identity.
The number of teams able to inflict physical punishment on the Penguins is less than it was even two years ago. The Penguins lineup should reflect their need for more red lamps, not black eyes.
However, when the Washington Capitals and Blue Jackets on the other side, all bets are off. Reaves has proven capable of adding bravery to Crosby and Malkin. He just hasn’t proven adept at other essential duties.
In the meantime, it appears Reaves will get a chance to prove doubters wrong with the revamped fourth line, and keep a few very important players safe, whether they need it or not.