Maple Leafs’ Ryan Reaves has done a complete 180 this season

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
2 months ago
The signing of Ryan Reaves this past summer has been the most polarizing topic among Toronto Maple Leafs fans and their media for much of the season. Perhaps because it was then-new GM Brad Treliving’s first signing of the summer, raising questions about his priorities, parlayed with his age and the term he received on the deal. Some felt it was an unnecessary use of cap space, others felt that his impact on the dressing room would make his contract worth it alone. It seemed to spark a summer-long debate between the analytics fans and the “eye-test” fans, leaving those who fall somewhere in the middle waiting for the season to start so he could be judged on his play and not on hypotheticals.
Well, it was foolish of me to think the discourse would end when the season started. Reaves hit the ground running with the Leafs, dropping the gloves in each of the first two games against the Montreal Canadiens and the Minnesota Wild, even earning the belt for the player of the game against Minnesota as voted by his teammates. His energy and presence were felt almost immediately, and briefly, it looked like Treliving knew something the rest of us didn’t. That notion lasted all of two games before it became painfully obvious that the Manitoba native was a step behind the rest of his teammates and couldn’t be trusted as an everyday player. The fourth line, which consisted of Reaves, David Kampf, and Noah Gregor at the time, was bringing next to nothing offensively and somehow even less defensively, and Reaves specifically was having an extremely tough time every time he was on the ice. There was a point where he was a minus-9 on the season despite averaging less than eight minutes a night.
For the next two months, it was more of the same for Reaves. He only managed one goal in 21 games, and he wasn’t even bringing the elements he was advertised to. All summer, the positive spin on the signing was that having him on the team would inspire the rest to play bigger and that other teams wouldn’t get away with throwing dirty hits or pushing them around if they knew he was on the opposing bench. There was a perfect opportunity for him to shed the pressure and do what he was brought here to do when defenceman Timothy Liljegren was taken hard into the boards in a November 2 game against the Boston Bruins, at the hands but who else but Brad Marchand. It was a dirty play that resulted in a high ankle sprain for Liljegren, but there was no response from Reaves or anyone else on the Leafs. So, no fights since the second game of the season, a goal against what felt like every time he was on the ice, and no inspiration to stand up for each other. It begged the question, what was he here to do?
The team continued to navigate a weird situation in the first year of his contract where it almost felt like an obligation to play him, but the team was clearly better off without him in the lineup. That brought us to December 14 against the Columbus Blue Jackets where Reaves stumbled awkwardly into the boards on his first shift and seemed to twist his knee. He left the game and wouldn’t return to the ice until January 27, a game against his hometown Winnipeg Jets. During that time, things seemed extremely bleak for him in terms of re-entering the lineup. Both Nick Robertson and Bobby McMann, neither of whom started the season with the Leafs, were playing far better than Reaves did at any point in the first three months, and on top of that, he also admitted that his knees were in terrible shape – to the point where they would pop out of place while getting out of bed in the morning if he didn’t have braces on.
“I have very loose knees. I’ve torn both of them a ton of times, and I don’t feel comfortable on the ice without them anymore” he said, referring to his knee braces. “I’ve tried taking them off, and my knees are so loose that when I cut to get out of bed the next morning, sometimes they pop out. So I keep ‘em on.”
So, here’s a guy on the wrong side of 30 with bad knees and not enough of a physical presence to justify playing him. To say he had an uphill battle upon his return from injury to stay in the lineup would have been the understatement of the century. And yet, here we are two months later, seven games away from the playoffs, having a legitimate discussion about why he probably deserves to start Game 1.
To put it bluntly, whatever Reaves did while he was injured might have ensured him a spot in the lineup for the rest of the season. Not only is he hitting and dropping the gloves a little more often, with four fights in 23 games since returning to the lineup, but on an even more surprising note, he’s legitimately helped turn the fourth line into what you’d typically expect from players in that role. He’s noticeably faster on his feet, he’s constantly mixing things up along the boards and in front of the net, and he gives the team an energy boost every time he’s on the ice. Whether that might be through a fight or a couple of thundering hits, he’s understood the assignment of setting the tone for the game early on, and it’s further helped the case that he should be in the lineup when the regular season switches to the postseason.
Hell, he’s even thrown the analytics crowd a bone with his play next to David Kampf and Connor Dewar lately.
So, what did Reaves do while he was out? In his own words, a lot of it came back to regaining his confidence, much like we saw the team do for Ilya Samsonov earlier in the year.
“I think that month and a half that I was out, I used that as a mini training camp. I worked hard, I bagged, I worked on everything that I could. I was doing two or three a day sometimes, just trying to get my confidence back. Confidence is a real thing, that’s the first time I’ve probably gone through something like that in my career where I just felt like nothing was going right and I just felt like I had no confidence. I just used that opportunity to try and build it back. Coming off the break, it felt like my game started getting a little bit better and then I just kept building on it ever since.”
Reaves especially made a strong case to be in the lineup with his performance in his last two games, against one team they’re likely to play in the playoffs this year and one team they played last year. In Tuesday’s game against Florida, he got under the skin of players like Matthew Tkachuk and threw eight hits. On Thursday against Tampa, he threw two thundering hits on Matt Dumba and Victor Hedman (notably not a small player!) on his first shift of the game and added five hits and an extremely lopsided fight with Tanner Jeannot. Given the way the Florida Panthers play in the playoffs, and knowing that the Leafs and Panthers will more than likely be against each other in round one, Reaves has seemingly understood the assignment and looks like a safer bet to throw on the fourth line over somebody like Nick Robertson, per se.
If you scroll through the articles I’ve written since last summer, specifically the ones about Reaves, it will feel like the equivalent of riding the Leviathan at Canada’s Wonderland. I tried to justify the signing at one point, I condemned him for the absence in that Bruins game, I called the contract a comedy of errors, and called the decision to trade Sam Lafferty after signing him a “laughable mistake”. I am more than happy to own up to being wrong on many of these, at least for now, and it’s why I’m writing this one now. Ryan Reaves has stepped up and done his job, and he deserves his flowers for it.

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