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Defining Ryan Reaves’ workload for the Maple Leafs

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Photo credit:Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
9 months ago
The Ryan Reaves signing either had you thrilled or incredibly puzzled. There didn’t seem to be any room for a stance in between. Given the length of time we have to analyze everything ad nauseum over the summer, I think we can carve out a little bit of time to find the grey area of a contract that is definitely a little bit of an overpayment, but an overpayment for a player that brings something unique to the lineup.
When looking at the Reaves signing, I definitely fell into the puzzled group. I’m all for the Leafs getting tougher but didn’t know how invested I become in a cheap bottom six forward group until I saw $1.35M being handed out to a 36 year old enforcer.
I’ll take one step back so I don’t completely lose credibility with the fight crowd. I like hockey fights. I like big hits. While I prefer a team toughness game where everyone finishes their checks, don’t back away from puck battles, and will get pissed off when goalies get snowed and star players get face washed.
I also don’t want to lose credibility with skill above all else crowd. The goal is to bring in hockey players who can play hockey, it is entirely possible to fill out a fourth line with players making the league minimum who should be trying to prove themselves by doing what is necessary to stay in the lineup, and it is far better to be on the powerplay than to get even in a scrum.
Somewhere in between those beliefs falls Ryan Reaves and here is the opinion I’ve come to form about him:
Ryan Reaves isn’t your run of the mill enforcer, a role that is increasingly less required. Reaves is also one of the best hitters in the game and at 36 hasn’t struggled to catch the opposition 200 times a year. Much like Luke Schenn last season, Reaves brings heavier hitting to the Leafs. It is one thing to have a high frequency hitter like Zach Aston-Reese or Noel Acciari, but Reaves or Schenn hits are ones that stick with you a bit longer and might be worth paying a bit more for. When it comes to production, Reaves picks up around the same number of points as most fourth liners, the Leafs aren’t missing out on some glorious offensive windfall by putting Reaves in the lineup.
On the other side of that, at 36 years old it seems reasonable to have concerns about giving term to a player that plays a hard style of hockey. There is an overwhelming desire to compare Reaves to other pugilists in the Leafs organization, and we’ve seen the reality of hard hockey catchup with Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds at younger ages than Reaves is now. It’s important to note that despite Reaves signing a contract at age 36, because the deal isn’t front loaded or containing bonuses, the 35+ contract rules do not fully apply, and it can be bought out if need be.
It seems a bit silly to dive into Ryan Reaves underlying numbers, but they are pretty much what you’d expect. Not ideal. Reaves isn’t dictating the direction of the puck while he’s on the ice and if he’s put with a low event linemate like Kampf, he probably won’t sway the Leafs too far away from that. If you have Sam Lafferty out there as well, you might be asking for too much from Kampf and the line might be in for a bad time. From a Leafs perspective, Kampf didn’t fare too well when given fourth line type players to work with. As much as the Leafs would seemingly benefit from a strong top nine and having the Kampf line as a shutdown fourth line, the Leafs might stick with Kampf on the third and build the fourth line out of Reaves, Lafferty, and a player to be determined. Considering how much Keefe liked to use his fourth line last year it will be interesting to see how the Leafs optimize what they can do and if Toronto believes the player to do so is Dylan Gambrell.
Given that so much of the argument for or against 4th line players is based on narrative, I will say that there is something positive about the fact that Ryan Reaves, as an enforcer, was dressed for all six of Minnesota’s playoff games. I guess you could say the fact that there were only six games might be due to dressing players like Reaves, but that’s on you for overvaluing the importance of the fourth line. Reaves was good enough to hold the role he had throughout the regular season.
The answer is that on a Sheldon Keefe team there isn’t any reason to believe that Ryan Reaves would be deployed much less than Zach Aston-Reese was and that Toronto will try to play Reaves ten minutes a night with no special teams and no situational usage. Reaves isn’t protecting a lead in a close game, he’s not helping you catch up when you are down, and in 4v4 situations the extra open ice is only going to expose him. He is still the first guy you look to when shortening the bench, but one that can be a good set of fresh legs on longer stretches without a whistle when you really want to knock the wind out of your opponents.
Reaves can have that regular shift, but he either needs to be a the focal point for the fourth line or someone that is planned around. If Reaves is playing with Kampf on the fourth line, the extra linemate needs to be strong enough at clogging the neutral zone that Kampf and said player can still achieve the shutdown effect the Leafs want. If the fourth line takes on more of Reaves crash and bang mentality, the Leafs might be better off with a player like Bobby McMann in their lineup than players like Pontus Holmberg or Nick Robertson, as McMann along with Lafferty could fit with the energy line identity that comes with Reaves.
Reaves could also be partnered with a rag tag group of players that Keefe wants to be deployed situationally. Nick Robertson could be someone the Leafs really want on their second powerplay unit and swapping in for a player like Jarnkrok on offensive zone starts. The Leafs might want to develop Pontus Holmberg as a penalty kill specialist and keep him on the fourth line in waiting. In those situations, putting Reaves out there with smaller, young players and “creating space” for them could also be a good thing and the combination of young players with a veteran energy filled leader isn’t a bad thing either.
To some extent it is surprising how much time Reaves spent with the same linemates last year in Minnesota. Mason Shaw and Connor Dewar were with Reaves most of the year. While they were definitely outmatched, there wasn’t a flood of goals against them and the only expectation of most fourth lines is that they don’t hemorrhage goals. Reaves’ competition in Minnesota mirrored the way that Simmonds was utilized in Toronto. Reaves played 49% of his time against bottom six competition, while Simmonds played 51% against bottom six forwards in Toronto.
When it comes to the fourth line there are generally no wrong answers and no right ones either. If your fourth line is great, you better either be winning the cup or you’ve committed too many resources to the bottom of your lineup. If your fourth line is underwhelming, it’s the fourth line, relax, but also fix it.
And while we are feeding narrative, there is absolutely something to team culture and if the feeling is that Ryan Reaves can be a part of improving that, why not chance it? The Leafs have definitely opted for a more aggressive forward group heading into the 2023-24 season, and while the Leafs dressing room culture has positive things like Nylander taking younger Swedes under his wing, Matthews working with Knies in Arizona this offseason, Marner being the first call to Easton Cowan, etc., if Reaves is a unifier and one who breaks the locker room cliques together into one big group, more power to him.
As the Leafs sit around in salary cap purgatory still needed to get their starting goaltender sorted, it’s easy to point to the $550k difference between Reaves and Kyle Clifford and say spend money there? And while that statement is fair and the Leafs can fall victim to death by a thousand cuts, Reaves is one of the best at what he does and this offseason was supposed to be about change. The Leafs haven’t given up anything skill-wise to bring in Reaves and going from Aston-Reese to Reaves isn’t a crippling blow for Toronto. And even if you don’t like his stats, cap hit, or age, the signing of Reaves along with bringing in players like Bertuzzi and Domi has changed the narrative around the Leafs and it is that they won’t be so easy to push around anymore. Whether you care for it or not, there are people in the game who do and it will be interesting to see if it translates to anything on the ice.
Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick, PuckIQ, and Evolving Hockey.

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