It is time for the Leafs to end the Ryan Reaves experiment

Photo credit:© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
7 months ago
During Saturday’s game against the Bruins, Ryan Reaves had an ice time of 5:57 and only took eight shifts the entire night. He only took two shifts in the second period and none in the third period and overtime.
Apart from a penalty he took in the first period and delivering four hits, he was a non-factor. It’s not the first time those words have been used to describe his impact in any given game so far this season and it’s not a good look when I can only count on one hand the number of times his presence made a big difference in the outcome.
Reaves played his role to perfection during the first two games of the year where he had a fight in both of them which helped spark a rally and eventually led to a Leafs win. He even scored a goal a few weeks ago on a deflection in front of the crease that helped extend their lead at the time. But beyond those three instances, he has been a liability on the ice and it has hurt the team’s chances of winning whenever Sheldon Keefe opts to use him in the lineup.
Here’s the thing: many knew coming into this experiment that Reaves was not going to be much of a factor on the ice. Brad Treliving highlighted at the time of inking the enforcer to a three-year contract that he wanted to bring some noise into what he perceived to be a quiet locker room. The idea was that Reaves would have a positive impact off the ice by keeping his teammates loose as evidenced by him controlling the locker room music. When he would be used in a game, they knew that his only job was to be an intimidating factor who was unafraid to stick up for his teammates and drop the gloves when the situation called for it.
I am not afraid to admit that I was initially on board with the signing because I got behind the idea of what he could bring regarding intangibles. After watching this play out for 17 games, my tone has shifted drastically and I can no longer ignore the reality that Reaves is not a viable option because his ineffective play overshadows whatever good he brings behind closed doors.
He may have been brought in to be an intimidating factor and prevent situations like Radko Gudas screaming in Joseph Woll’s face, but that has not stopped opposing teams from taking runs at the Leafs. This was evident when he did not properly respond to Brad Marchand injuring Timothy Liljegren during their other encounter with Boston this season.
Reaves is certainly holding up his end of the bargain regarding the physical side of the game as he is currently fourth on the team in hits with 36. But that aspect of his game often crosses the line to the point of him getting called for an infraction that needlessly forces his team to kill a penalty, with him averaging 0.94 penalty minutes a game this season.
The fourth line with him on it has been a liability all season long given that his on-ice GF% is a putrid 14.29% at the time of writing. A big part of why his presence makes that line ineffective is because of how slow he is, always behind the play and not being agile enough to quickly get to either end of the ice. Being a great skater who can consistently get up to top speed in as few strides as possible is the nature of today’s NHL, and Reaves can’t keep up.  His top speed of 21.25 mph is well below the league average of 21.87 while he almost exclusively only has bursts of speed between 18-20 mph. Little things like this make a massive difference in determining the outcome of a game and having one player on a line who is not fast enough helps explain why the Leafs constantly get outchanced and outpossessed when Reaves is on the ice.
So with all of this evidence showing that the Leafs put themselves at a disadvantage when Reaves is slotted into the lineup, it makes Keefe’s decision to use him again for tonight’s game against the Senators all the more inexcusable.
What did Reaves do against the Bruins that justified him earning another look against a division rival? Judging by his minuscule minutes in that game, it makes no logical sense to once again slot in a player who has averaged 7:33 of ice time a night and will likely be a non-factor during his shifts.
By constantly using him, the Leafs are robbing younger players in the organization who are far more deserving of a longer look. While I understand that was difficult to do early in the year with the team being cap-strapped, that is no longer a reality and using Reaves now makes even less sense. That means guys like Bobby McMann, Alex Steeves, Pontus Holmberg, and Nick Abruzzese are unable to get a proper shot on the fourth line despite being vastly superior options compared to Reaves.
In addition, this forces the Leafs to be even more reliant on their top guns than in seasons past which is a lot to ask from an endurance standpoint. I get that these are players who are in peak physical shape and are trained to be used frequently, but there is only so much one can take and they will eventually reach a point where they have nothing left in the tank.
Look no further than how Saturday’s game ended when John Tavares was lackadaisical in getting back to defend and William Nylander being behind the play on Marchand’s OT winner. By no means am I suggesting that Reaves is the sole reason why that happened, but the decision to dress him and then barely use him set off a domino effect that resulted in Keefe having to use the other three lines more (especially in the third period) and the big four eventually ran out of gas by the end of overtime.
With how often the Leafs have been playing games beyond regulation up to this point, durability is certainly going to play a factor as the season progresses.
Their decision to continually use Reaves essentially forces them to play a man short every single time. I understand that there are going to be moments where they will be forced to play shorthanded because of an injury, but slotting in a guy who is barely going to be used basically means the Leafs are going 11-6 when they don’t need to and that will eventually come back to bite them.
There is no getting around the fact that it will be nearly impossible for the Leafs to trade away his contract because I cannot envision another team willing to stomach his $1.35 million salary given how little he brings to the table on the ice. The only option that they can do is bury him in the AHL and then buy him out since the contract isn’t a 35+ deal despite him being 36 years old. Once they rip off the bandaid, they can unleash McMann a full-time look or look to trade for someone else such as Alexey Toropchenko.
It is difficult to justify Reaves continuing to get playing time and things will only get worse the longer this lasts. If he is this unreliable now, then I can only imagine how much worse it will get in 2024 and beyond. He is always behind the play, his line is constantly outshot and outscored, he has not deterred the opposition from taking runs at his teammates, and he is not disciplined enough to warrant continued usage. There is no wonder why he has only once had an ice time of over 10 minutes in 2023-24; if he is not delivering hits and dropping the gloves, he is a non-factor. His presence in the lineup prevents superior options from getting a chance and forces Keefe to lean more on the top guns than needed.
All of which is to say that the Leafs need to put the kibosh on the Reaves experiment because it has become painfully clear two months into the season that he is not a viable option.
Stats from Hockey-Reference.com. Salary information from CapFriendly.

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