Chirps, bumps, and the odd goal: Where was this Ryan Reaves all year?

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
5 months ago
For a brief moment, in the first two games of the season, Ryan Reaves made every Toronto  Maple Leafs fan (or most of them anyway) forget about his contract. 
New general manager Brad Treliving started his Maple Leafs tenure with a…questionable signing to say the least. He gave the longtime enforcer a three-year contract with an average annual value of $1.3 million. With all due respect to Reaves, who’s known for his dressing room presence and personality despite his shortcomings on the ice, it was the type of contract the Leafs hadn’t dished out since Lou Lamoriello signed Matt Martin to a four-year deal worth $2.5 million annually. 
While on paper, the contract looked bad, there was a large chunk of the fanbase willing to overlook the price tag in exchange for some desperately needed “snot”, as Treliving put it. Someone to make the rest of the team feel a little bit bigger and inject some extra confidence into the dressing room. While Toronto always gets a bad rep in terms of pressure from the media and the fans alike, all you have to do to win the fans over is give an honest effort and show them you care and want to be here. It’s why blue-collar players like Tie Domi and Darcy Tucker are looked back upon so fondly, and it’s why there was always the possibility that fans would forget about the value of his contract as soon as he put the jersey on and threw a few punches. 
Anyway, back to those first two games. As we all know, Reaves had two fights in those games. The first one was a bit of a wrestling match with Montreal Canadiens defenceman Arber Xhekaj, and the second one was a proper heavyweight tilt between him and his former teammate, Marcus Foligno. The Leafs won both of these first two games, with Reaves even getting the player of the game belt for his energy and impact en route to the win.
Then, everything stopped. 
Reaves stopped dropping the gloves. He stopped forcing his way into scrums. And in moments that he was precisely signed for, such as when Brad Marchand took Timothy Liljegren into the boards and injured him, he was nowhere to be seen aside from a couple of chirps from the bench. 
Things only got worse from there. Outside of his lone goal on the season at the time, which came on the road against the Chicago Blackhawks, he struggled. He was a minus-11 through his first 21 games of the season despite only playing an average of seven minutes and 20 seconds a night, and his legs were noticeably several steps behind those of Noah Gregor and David Kampf on the fourth line. 
To add insult to injury, the Leafs dealt one of their more effective bottom-six forwards in Sam Lafferty to the Vancouver Canucks to meet cap requirements, despite him making less than Reaves. The former now has ten goals and 20 points in 49 games for the Vancouver Canucks, for context. 
Reaves twisted his knee in a December game against the Columbus Blue Jackets and only recently made his return to the lineup, and even that entire gap when he didn’t put on a jersey had some ugliness sprinkled in. Despite the Leafs having him on the injured reserve, Reaves said in an interview with Sportsnet that despite his knees being at constant risk of popping out of place, he was good to go. Clearly, the Leafs didn’t agree; it took Calle Jarnkrok and Bobby McMann both going out with an injury to get him back into the lineup. 
And, to his credit, he did just about everything the fans had been asking of him while healthy. He was hard on the forecheck, he mixed it up in scrums, defended his teammates, and even scored a goal (a nice one, too). The only thing he didn’t do was fight, but that was more due to not having a willing dance partner than anything else. Just take a look at some of the mentions under a post about Reaves getting in the face of Nikolaj Ehlers (yes, that Ehlers). 
Obviously, three tweets don’t speak for a whole fanbase. That shouldn’t have to be clarified. But it represents the sentiment much of the fanbase shares.
The point of that string of tweets isn’t to fluff up Reaves bullying a player who’s not known to be a fighter. It’s to show that, when you bring the swagger and confidence that was advertised to justify your contract, people are going to forgive and forget far easier. Of course, there are still going to be people who say that no matter what he does, he won’t live up to his contract. That part may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that your common Leafs fan doesn’t watch hockey to analyze contracts. They watch for goals, hits, and fights. While the first part might be hard to come by with Reaves, he won’t have the whole fanbase and media circle barking in his ear if he brings the other two on occasion. 
I’ve been critical of the Reaves contract – I won’t deny that. I’ve got two articles under my belt right now talking about how bad the signing has looked so far. That said, you can be critical of the amount of money he was signed for while also appreciating the impact he made on Saturday against one of the league’s best defensive teams. And that right there is the point to be taken away from this – if he does that every time he gets into the lineup, he’ll bring the outside noise down. Will he still have his critics? Absolutely. But there will be less noise. 
Since the Leafs started the season with Reaves on the fourth line, we’ve seen at least three forwards step up to earn themselves roster spots in Nick Robertson, Pontus Holmberg, and Bobby McMann. Maybe we start to see this version of Reaves more often now that it’s apparent how easily his roster spot can be replaced when he’s playing the way he did from Game #3 of the season until his injury. Either way, he needs to channel the traits that earned him the contract night in and night out if he wants security in the lineup. We’ll see if his first game back was a flash in the pan or not.

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