“Enforcer” isn’t exactly an in-demand job description in today’s NHL. A few years back, the small group of players whose primary skill set involved their ability to intimidate and their heavy fists began to exit the league. Some are still carving out hockey careers in the minors. Others have moved on to the next chapter of their lives.
Good thing for Ryan Reaves, then, that he doesn’t intend to be defined solely by that job title.
The new Penguin, acquired from St. Louis on draft day for prospect Oskar Sundqvist and a first-round draft pick, sat in his new practice stall Sunday not looking at all winded after a training camp scrimmage and conditioning drills. At 6-foot-1 and 225 lbs., he’s big, but he can also keep up.
That’s no small order when you’ve joined a team that’s won back-to-back titles largely on speed and skill. And Reaves’ ability to keep up is the result of a lot of hard work – and a willingness to adapt his game to stay with the times.
“I think the biggest key in my career is, when I’ve been told to adapt and change my game, or when the game has been changing due to rules or just how teams are making their lineups, that’s been my main focus over summers – adapting to what the team wants and what the NHL is going toward.
“[For] a couple years I’ve worked on a lot of speed, a lot of power. A lot less throwing up weights, less boxing. A lot more on-ice stuff, a lot more skill work. I’m obviously not a goal scorer, but I can definitely chip in now. You have to do that in this NHL.”
That willingness to adapt and improve has helped him carve out a solid big-league career. Reaves spent seven seasons with the Blues, who drafted him in 2005, and saw a career high in his average ice time last year. During a stretch-run streak where St. Louis won nine of 10 games, he went from that high of 8:53 per game to an average of more than 11 minutes.
That speaks to trust from a coaching staff, and Reaves has that in Pittsburgh, too.
“I like the fact that Ryan can really skate,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I think his skating ability is evident. He can play at both ends of the rink. We certainly are hopeful that we can help him in all aspects of his game, so that he can contribute at both ends of the rink. I think he’s going to be able to play the type of game the Penguins are trying to play.”
Sullivan thinks Reaves’ presence on the ice, and willingness to make the big hit, can help force mistakes and create offense.
“Our priority is always to keep the puck but, the way this game has evolved, there’s a fair amount of puck pursuit out there, too – chasing people down and forcing turnovers by putting our opponents under pressure,” Sullivan said. “I think Ryan can really help us in that area of the game.
“He can skate, he can get to people, and I think opponents will be well aware when he’s on the ice. They’ll be more inclined to make a play a little bit quicker, and sometimes that turns into an errant pass and a potential counterattack opportunity for our team.”
The Penguins are intrigued enough by Reaves’ skill set, in fact, that they’re already planning to give him a stretch assignment in the preseason.
“We’re going to explore using him on the penalty kill,” Sullivan said. “We think he’s a big body, he’s got a long reach, he’s a mobile guy. Is that an area where he can help us? I’m not sure yet, but that’s something we’re going to explore.”
That’s more than Penguins fans might have expected when they heard GM Jim Rutherford made good on his promise to acquire some protection for a lineup he felt had taken its share of abuse over the past few years. But Reaves knows that’s a big part of his role, too.
“A lot of teams like to take liberties on these guys the last couple years, but that comes with the territory of being the best,” Reaves said. “When you’re the best, everybody wants to knock you off your throne.
“I think I’m coming in here and, at the very least, I’m giving a pushback. When the game starts to get physical, I think I can calm things down. When guys are going after our top guys, I definitely have the ability to settle them down and, if need be, drop the gloves and settle the game down that way.
“I try to bring a presence to the ice, to make sure everybody knows I’m there and make sure they know there’s consequences for every action.”
Whether you’re a fan of the physical aspect a player like Reaves brings to the game or not, a team’s tough guy is usually pretty well-liked by the teammates he’s willing to stand up for.
“It will be nice to have this element, and not only just for me,” Sidney Crosby told USA Today. “There will be a lot of guys who are going to feel that extra space.”
“A lot of people think fighters are mean guys that just want to kill everybody and rip their heads off,” Reaves laughed. “I like to joke around more than anybody. I’m kind of the class clown, making sure everything’s light. There’s a time to be serious, but you’ve also got to have fun. It’s a fun sport.”
For Reaves, not much would be more fun than seeing the work he’s put into evolving his game pay off in a championship.
“This team’s established. They know how to win here, and they’ve been doing it for the last 10 years,” Reaves said. “We were building something in St. Louis and we were getting there, but [I’m] coming to a team that has another really good shot to win it.
“I haven’t won a Cup yet, and it’s every kid’s dream and every hockey player’s dream to get that Cup in the air. I’m excited.”