The first year of the Ryan Graves experience with the Pittsburgh Penguins has been mostly forgettable. But things really started reaching a breaking point in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals when Graves seemed to be at the center of almost everything bad that happened on the ice, resulting in him getting a decreased role over the second and third periods and then rotating in on the third pairing at Wednesday’s practice.
None of that is really encouraging for one of the Penguins’ most expensive offseason additions, and a player that was expected to take on a pretty big role on the defense. Not just for the season, but for multiple seasons.
Nothing that we have seen so far indicates that he is that player, and that is leaving the Penguins in a really tough spot with him.
For one, given his contract the Penguins are not really in a position to outright bench him. They are paying him over $4 million per season and can not afford to have that sort of salary cap hit consistently sitting in the press box. It might be worthwhile to sit him for a game or two, or to reduce his role, but he is going to play. And for better or worse he might have to play because I am not sure there are many better options internally when it comes to logging minutes.
Even with the returns of Pierre-Olivier Joseph and Chad Ruhwedel there still isn’t a ton of NHL caliber depth at the position, either in the NHL or AHL.
Based on Wednesday’s pairings it looks like Joseph might get a shot with Erik Karlsson on the second-pairing while Graves will most likely be on the third-pairing next to Ruhwedel. Even if you decided to sit Graves you still have to rely on the likes of Ryan Shea or John Ludvig (when healthy) to dress. And those just aren’t great options for a playoff hopeful team. For all of Graves’ flaws that we have seen this season, he is still an NHL player. Just perhaps one that now has a problematic contract and is struggling to fit into a new team, new system and his role.
The Graves signing was probably one of the least popular moves from new general manager Kyle Dubas this offseason, mostly due to the contract and term. I tried to be optimistic about it because he had experience playing next to top-tier players in both Colorado (Cale Makar) and New Jersey (Dougie Hamilton) and mostly produced strong results. At the very least I figured he could be a Brian Dumoulin-type player alongside either Kris Letang or Karlsson.
That has not been the case, and instead of elevating their play he has actually been the common denominator in bringing the production for both of them down.
There is a school of thought that it can take defenders an adjustment period on a new team and that perhaps Graves is still struggling through that. The Penguins have had some notable free agent defensemen over the years struggle early on and then bounce back in later years. Sergei Gonchar’s first-year with the Penguins was a little on the rocky side in terms of his overall play before he became the No. 1 defender they signed him to be. Paul Martin had an infamously poor first season — and facing heavy criticism while doing so — before rebounding into one of their steadiest and most solid all-around defensemen.
But I think hoping for that sort of bounce back here is expecting a lot.
First, Ryan Graves isn’t Sergei Gonchar.
Second, even though Martin faced intense criticism for his first season he still posted consistently strong underlying numbers and did show a lot of signs that his play could — and would — bounce back.
Graves has not really provided that sort of optimism or underlying performance.
He’s just been sub-par by both the eye test and the numbers.
And for every Gonchar or Martin that did get better in future seasons, there has been a Zbynek Michalek, Jack Johnson and Rob Scuderi that ended up being exactly what they showed us in their first year.
The Penguins simply need to figure out a way to make this work and hope he can get back on track and at least play closer to what he did in Colorado and New Jersey. Because even though he was never a star with either team, he was more effective than what he has been here. If they do not get it figured out they are going to have a major problem with no easy solution. No contract is ever untradeable, but this would be a really difficult deal to move. They also have no other good options to keep him out of the lineup.