Rationalizing the Leafs’ decision to sign Ryan Reaves for multiple years

Photo credit:Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
7 months ago
When Brad Treliving made tough guy Ryan Reaves his first free agent signing as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I wasn’t thrilled about it, and there was a large crowd who were on the same page. Not so much because of the player himself, but because of the type of contract he got. 
Of course, the deal Reaves signed with the Maple Leafs was for three years and worth $1.3 million annually. Considering the amount of fourth-line players who signed at a lower price, just like they do every year, it felt like an overpayment for a 36-year-old enforcer whose most valuable asset at this stage of his career is his physicality, and more specifically, his fists.
Another reason I wasn’t big on the signing at the time was that it felt like they were trying to repeat the Wayne Simmonds experiment, despite him having more to bring offensively at the time of his signing than Reaves does now. 
After a hot start to his Maple Leafs career, Simmonds suffered a forearm injury after blocking a shot. Although his dressing room presence was welcomed and his mental toughness was still intact, he was never the same after that injury and the physicality made less of an impact towards the end of his time with the Maple Leafs. 
Not only did his on-ice play limit him to only five or six minutes per game by the end of the 2021-22 season and only 18 NHL games in 2022-23, but the lack of ice time prevented him from throwing those big hits and dropping the gloves regularly, things that he was supposed to provide to spark the team. So, at the time, bringing in another Simmonds-type player who’s older and has less of an offensive game seemed like an unnecessary use of the team’s limited cap space. 
That said, I’d be lying if I said he didn’t absolutely nail his first quote to the Toronto media.
To be fair to Reaves, I think my skepticism over the contract was largely due to a couple of factors. Mostly, the fact that he was the only player the Maple Leafs were reported to have been connected to in the hours before free agency began. No mentions of top-six forwards or top-four defencemen, just one fourth-liner. Once he found a way to bring in John Klingberg, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Max Domi in the following 48 hours, the move was easier to stomach. 
Since those few opening days, it’s become easier and easier by the day to rationalize the move. Yes, it’s fair to say that from a purely on-ice perspective, Reaves isn’t worth $1.3 million a year. The Leafs probably could have signed somebody a little younger, and a little faster, for closer to the league minimum. You’re looking at one of those types in Noah Gregor, the former San Jose Sharks forward who they just brought in on a professional tryout (PTO). 
But, whether it’s me as a writer covering the team, you at home reading articles about them, or the average fan who watches the games when they’re on, there’s one common denominator that’s undisputed; none of us are in the dressing room, and there’s a strong chance none of us have ever been in one before. 
One of the reasons Treliving cited for signing Reaves was the fact that he had heard the Maple Leafs’ dressing room was quiet and that he believed teams needed “characters”. While it remains that fans aren’t in the dressing room, you can tell watching them on the ice that they’re a quiet group. Captain John Tavares, who clearly has the respect of his teammates, is more of a “lead-by-example” type than a vocal type. Matthews, Marner, and Rielly make up some of the other leaders on the team, but it’s not often you see them raising their voices on the ice. 
Will Reaves be a lead-by-example type on the ice? Probably not in the department of puck-moving and skating, but his tendency to bark from the bench and stick up for his teammates is something that carries a value only truly understood by the people who are in the same room as him. Of course, you shouldn’t be signing players exclusively for the words they speak, but to suggest that a willingness to speak up, defend teammates, and keep the team dialled in when the going gets tough carries no value itself isn’t something anyone who isn’t there for it can really decide. 
It’s also worth mentioning that since 2017-18, Reaves has been to the Stanley Cup Final once and to three Conference Finals as well. Not that he was an instrumental part in any of those runs, but the fact remains that he’s been on several playoff runs that have gone deeper than anything the Leafs have had since 2004. He understands the type of buy-in mentality that teams need to have to make a deep run, and in the end, having another voice in the room who’s been there can’t have a negative impact. 
And going back to the original issue at hand, which was the value of his contract, if Reaves falls off such a massive cliff that using him can’t possibly be justified by the time 2025-26 or even 2024-25 rolls around, the contract can be buried in the AHL. They aren’t going to be anchored to anything because it’s an unconventional 35-plus contract.
So, while I’m going to maintain my skepticism about the price tag that Reaves will come with, I’m also going to wait and see what kind of an impact he has on the team before I make my full judgement of the contract. While Bertuzzi and Domi don’t have nearly the same physical edge Reaves does, their on-ice character and presences are all loud, exposing a clear theme to the type of players that were acquired this off-season. 
If the Maple Leafs are still submissive on the ice in 2023-24 while Reaves has little-to-no physical impact and sees his ice time diminish as the season goes on, then yeah, we can re-visit this and criticize the signing to the fullest extent. But what if there’s a clear change in their on-ice persona, a little more of a willingness to stick up for each other, and clear evidence that his on-ice antics give the team a spark? It’s something they could use with their newfound aspirations of making it past the second round instead of the first round, and if he plays even the smallest part in getting them there, that $1.3 million is going to seem like a couple of nickels and dimes.

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