How Ryan Reaves can unlock the best version of his game

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
21 days ago
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Ryan Reaves finished a polarizing first season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he often met the requirements of his job description but at times, didn’t elevate the team’s fourth line. Reaves missed over a month of action from mid-December to late January but upon returning to the lineup, the 37-year-old showed a pathway towards the best version of his game — finding consistency is the key for the 2024-25 season.
The vast majority of Reaves’ best performances occurred in February, shortly after returning to the lineup. It may be an oversimplification of his game but Reaves is at his best when he attacks the net-front, using his massive frame to box out defenders and when he skates with real intentionality. The latter point may seem strikingly obvious, but from the eye test, having watched Reaves in-person for the first half of the 2023-24 season, when he skates with purpose, rather than taking bad angles to the puck, his game improves significantly. Reaves isn’t a strong skater so he has to be intentional with the routes he takes and when he does, it generally leads to better outcomes.

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Below is a simple, easy example. Reaves returned to the lineup on Jan. 27 against his hometown Winnipeg Jets and scored by posting up at the net-front.
Reaves’ best game of the regular season took place on Feb. 22 against the Vegas Golden Knights, one of his former clubs. During this game, Reaves disrupted Vegas’ defenders by getting in the way of passing lanes, posting up net-front and making correct reads on the forecheck so he wouldn’t be stuck too deep if the Golden Knights broke out successfully.
It’s just one play but the shift where Reaves scored is a prime example. Reaves stays in sound position to disrupt Brayden McNabb’s shot attempts, the puck ricochets out to Pontus Holmberg and Reaves bursts up the ice in transition and heads to the net for a tap-in. He’s not going to burn opponents off the rush habitually but correctly anticipating plays on the wall makes things a lot easier. Toronto finished with an 81.7 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 when Reaves was on the ice during this game and it’s a defining example of what he can do when he simplifies his game.
We don’t need to quantify Reaves’ physical impact on the game. From his opening-night fight against Montreal’s Arber Xhekaj which brought the house down, to his willingness to stick up for teammates throughout the year, Reaves fulfilled the role of fourth-line enforcer and brought the ‘snot’ general manager Brad Treliving sought after.
Several pieces have been authored about the deficiencies in Reaves’ game or for those who view hockey as the sum of one’s labour relative to the salary cap, some aren’t thrilled that he has two years remaining. It wasn’t an unmitigated disaster and while it’s unrealistic to expect a major leap from a player in their late 30s, there’s a pathway for Reaves to simplify his game for the Maple Leafs and potentially unlock the best version of his game more consistently.

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