Ryan Reaves is impacting games this season like he never has before.
Whether it’s been a coaching change, standing by their goalie as he endured severe struggles during the middle of the season, dealing with a trade that sent a member of their leadership group packing, losing their most exciting young player due to an ACL tear, or simply adjusting to a more modern style of play during 2016-17, the St. Louis Blues have faced their fair share of adversity this season.
Obviously, for a group to have the ability to fight adversity, they need at least one steady presence who has the ability to steer the ship in times of trouble. While Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrik Berglund, and Alex Pietrangelo are the players who are consistently getting talked about for stepping up and filling those roles this season, there’s one player who has come forward and turned into one of the team’s best leaders by example.
Were it not for Berglund going crazy and scoring more goals than he has since 2010-11 or Magnus Paajarvi coming up in February and becoming the team’s most consistent shooter the rest of the way, Reaves would very obviously have been the Blues’ most improved player this season. While he may not have experienced quite as much offensive success as Berglund and Paajarvi did, Reaves found new ways to influence the game that he had never really utilized in the past.
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Whether it’s been by making himself a reliable presence in front of the net when the Blues have good opportunities in the opposing zone, further boosting his speed and becoming one of the Blues’ best skaters, or developing into a very competent offensive player (a career-high seven goals and six assists in 80 games this season), Reaves has stepped up as much as any player this season and has made the transition from Ken Hitchcock’s rough-and-tumble style to Mike Yeo’s speed-and-skill-based approach an easy one.
Reaves, a player who often saw only five or six minutes of ice time per game prior to this season, saw more than 10 minutes in a career-high 28 games during 2016-17. He rose to the challenge again on Wednesday night, playing 22 shifts (12:52) as the Blues outlasted the Wild in a 77-minute battle of pure grit and perseverance. Contrast that with Game 1 of the first round last season, which lasted 69 minutes but saw Reaves play just 10 shifts (6:32), or a 65-minute overtime game in 2014 during which Reaves played just nine shifts (3:49).
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It’s so difficult to imagine that a year ago–and for that matter, earlier this season–Reaves was relegated to the press box as other players got opportunities on the fourth line. While Reaves provided one of the most memorable moments of the Blues’ 2016 playoff run, knocking Dallas Stars winger Curtis McKenzie to the ice and then blowing a kiss to the Stars’ bench as he headed to the dressing room, he was mostly an afterthought during the Blues’ postseason journey.
He played in the first two games of the first round series against the Chicago Blackhawks, helping them to a 1-0 overtime win in Game 1 before being part of a losing effort in Game 2. In Game 3, he was swapped out for winger Steve Ott, who hadn’t played in a game since December after suffering two hamstring tears and along the way enduring a battle with colitis.
With Ott bringing positive energy to the lineup, Reaves was scratched until Game 2 of the Dallas series. And while he made his mark in Game 3 of that second round matchup, collecting seven penalty minutes while playing 7:39, he was benched for the remaining nine games of the Blues’ postseason run after failing to make an impact though 4:32 of the Blues’ Game 4 overtime loss to the Stars.
With imposing winger Dmitrij Jaskin having made a strong impression during both the Dallas series and the Western Conference Finals, collecting a goal and an assist while playing with the fourth line for six games, it looked as if he’d get the first crack at the fourth-line right wing job in 2016-17. He had filled that role against many of the Blues’ faster opponents in 2015-16, and the team signed him to a two-year contract extension in June.
When it was determined that Vladimir Sobotka wouldn’t join the Blues in time for the ’16-’17 regular season, however, an opportunity to seize a top nine role was opened up for Jaskin. That, in turn, created some security for Reaves on the fourth line, and he took full advantage. The big winger added significant speed and increased his durability during the summer, and it became very obvious as this season got underway that he was a different player.
It didn’t necessarily show on the stat sheet right away–Reaves didn’t collect his first point of the season until his 12th game, and he didn’t play more than 10 minutes in a game until November 15. But once he heated up, he really got going. Reaves had two goals and four assists in 22 games from November 6 to December 22, then an even more impressive four goals and one assist in 18 games from March 5 to April 8. Obviously, those aren’t the numbers you want out of a guy on your first line, but for a player who’s bringing as much energy and physicality as Reaves does, they’re more than acceptable–impressive, even–for a player on the third or fourth line.
It’s amazing to think that there was any point during this season that the Blues willingly chose to make Reaves a healthy scratch. It did happen twice, on November 3 and 12, though those decisions made by Ken Hitchcock weren’t so much a reflection on Reaves’s play as they were a last-ditch effort to try to get high-profile trade acquisition Nail Yakupov going.
By December, the Blues apparently concluded that neither Jaskin or Yakupov was going to provide them as much help as Reaves, and from there on out they began giving Reaves consistent chances while limiting the opportunities for the two younger wingers. Jaskin played in just 20 of a possible 44 games after the new year, while Yakupov played in 19 over that period. Reaves, meanwhile, played in the final 66 games of the season and consistently saw his opportunities grow as the season went on, particularly after Mike Yeo took over as head coach.
It’s difficult to know what the future holds for Reaves. If he’s left unprotected–which seems rather likely now that the Blues have seven top-nine forwards (Patrik Berglund, Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Sobotka, Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny, and Vladimir Tarasenko) under contract for next year–he’s at least a fringe candidate to be selected by the Vegas Golden Knights. Even if he returns to the Blues next season, he’ll be on the wrong side of 30 years old, and he’ll likely have to play with a new linemate since the Blues seem inclined to replace Scottie Upshall with an in-house option such as Jaskin, Sobotka, or Zach Sanford.
If there were any doubts about whether Reaves was a “true hockey player”–that is, a guy who can actually skate and consistently make a tangible impact on the game–he’s destroyed them 10 times over with his performance this season. For a player whose career was kind of at a crossroads after the 2015-16 season, he’s done a great job of making a name for himself this year.