One of the most important aspects to the off-season for the Penguins so far has been a key change on defense. Gone from the team as a free agent was Brian Dumoulin, a hero of 2016 and 2017 but a player who has seen tough times on the ice in recent years. New to the scene for the Pens to fill that gap will be Ryan Graves, who Pittsburgh moved quickly on the first day of free agency to bring into town on a six year contract.
Let’s dig in and see a little more about what Graves did last year in the efforts to understand what he can be expected to offer to the Penguins moving forward.
Player: Ryan Graves
Born: May 21, 1995 (Age 28)
Weight: 220 pounds
Hometown: Yarmouth, Nova Scotia
Draft and Team History: 2013 fourth round (110th overall) pick by the New York Rangers...After spending 2015-18 years as a pro with Hartford (AHL), Graves was traded to Colorado for minor league forward Ryan Bigras...Split 2018-19 between NHL/AHL, making his NHL debut with the Avalanche and then becoming a full-time player for two seasons (2019-21)....Traded in summer 2021 to New Jersey for a second round pick and forward Mikhail Maltsev and spent two full seasons with the Devils (2021-23)....Signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent in July 2023
2022-23 Statistics: 78 games played, 8 goals, 18 assists, 26 points, 28 PIMs
Contract Status: Signed through 2028-29 with a $4.5 million cap hit. Per CapFriendly, Graves has a limited 12 team no trade clause for the first three years of the deal, and then for the final three years it shrinks to being able to block eight teams.
—Graves has bounced around a lot for a young player. As a mid-round pick, he required years of development but was seemingly getting no where in New York before a savvy move by the Avalanche paid off for player and team. Then when Colorado experienced some salary cap tightening, he was traded again and was another wise pickup by New Jersey to help anchor a defensive pair.
—Graves comes to Pittsburgh having been a regular NHL player for the last 4.5 seasons, showing some durability in playing 54 out of 56 games in 2020-21, 75/82 in 2021-22 and 78/82 games last season, while playing second pair minutes of around 20 per game.
Monthly Splits in 2022-23
—Despite Graves’ impressive physical frame, he is not the classic “big, crease-clearing defenseman” archetype of days gone by. He does not take a lot of penalties and was credited with barely more hits (83) than games played (78). We will see how he adjusts to Pittsburgh and how they want him to play, Graves’ 3.2 hits/60 in 2022-23 would have ranked dead last among regular Penguin defenders last season.
—A little more on penalty breakouts; Graves was only whistled for 28 PIMs all season long, all 14 coming by way of two-minute minors. Only one was a roughing, and just three were classic stick fouls (2x cross-check, one slashing), which gives an indicator that he is not an aggressive player that tends to use his stick as a weapon or crutch to defend with nor does he mix it up a lot before or after the whistle. His most frequent penalties were for tripping and interference (four each).
—However, just because he does not launch his body around or use his stick much to hack at opponents does not imply he is ineffective defensively or have ways to disrupt opponents. Graves led the Devils with 5.86 blocked shots/60, which would have led Pittsburgh blueliners last year.
Story of the Season
Graves was paired largely with former Penguin John Marino last season on New Jersey’s primary shutdown defensive group. He also skated with Damon Severson for a chunk in the middle of the year. His role was very defensive, often taking starts in his own end.
The penalty kill is a strength of Graves and an area where Pittsburgh will doubtlessly plug him in and look for him to give his new team a boost. While Graves’ xGA impacts were almost identical, the added context of having to often start the kill in the zone and provide solid defensive inputs (especially relative to teammates in Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler) suggest good work being done that will add to the Pens.
One perhaps under-reported or under-appreciated element to Graves is his shot. As can be seen in the heat areas from the left point, he will put pucks on net and can be counted on to score some goals - likely an upgrade from left-handed members like Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson who usually played the left defense position with the Pens’ skill players.
Ryan Graves ➡️ Pittsburgh Penguins— Andy & Rono (@ARHockeyStats) July 1, 2023
6-year contract with $4.5M AAV
Graves is a solid defenseman but man, six-year deal is quite risky. pic.twitter.com/8lDcygFkxf
In transition Graves will help too. He does not generate many first assists or setup goals, but he is good at advancing the puck through the zone to forwards and should aid the Pens’ breakouts. He has a strong ability to use his body and stick to deny opponents the zone, but was not doing much if any retrieving of the puck (which would have to be an area for Kris Letang and
Erik Karlsson err Jeff Petry to handle).
Compared to the league, the bottom chart shows a lot that has been touched on. Graves has been durable and able to play a lot of games, and a good chunk of tough minutes. His iCF (fancy way to say attempted shots) is very high and shows that he is an active participant in the offensive zone. He blocks a ton of shots.
Overall it seems like there is a perception or narrative that based on size alone that Graves will be in a defensive role or add a physical element to the Penguins. However, that truly is not reflective of his game and playing style. Graves is not a physical, stay-at-home defender who hits a lot, ala a Brendon Dillon, Erik Cernak, Nikita Zadorov or K’Andre Miller type of player.
Graves will be counted on to add a defensive presence and his resume shows the ability to get good results against extremely tough competition and an exceptional ability to block shots. However, his style is also very active one, Graves is not a classic Dumoulin defensive defenseman who sits back and mostly watches in the offensive zone.
The key for the Pens as this six-year contract goes on might be how well Graves maintains his ability to skate and get around the ice. In the early years and while still in his 20’s, he should be a great fit for Pittsburgh and Mike Sullivan’s system that demands defenders lead breakouts with their passing while taking care of their business without the puck.