While most of us in Canada spent the long Thanksgiving weekend with our families enjoying an overwhelming amount of delicious turkey and stuffing, Joe Sakic and his staff were hard at work. The Colorado Avalanche front office had its busiest weekend in months following the opening of free agency on Friday, Oct. 9.
They topped it off with perhaps their most important signing on Monday — restricted free agent Ryan Graves. The 25-year-old defenseman signed a three-year extension worth $9.5 million, avoiding arbitration. It is a fair deal for both sides.
Long Journey in the Minors
The road to the NHL was far from a glamorous one for the Yarmouth, Nova Scotia native. His journey began at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, selected in the fourth round (110th overall) by the New York Rangers. For the next five seasons, Graves split his time between the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the American Hockey League. His development stalled with the Hartford Wolf Pack during the 2017-18 season, where the Rangers elected to trade him away at the deadline to Colorado.
Despite starting the 2018-19 season in the minors yet again, things improved for Graves. On Dec. 27, 2018, the Yarmouth product made his NHL debut against the Vegas Golden Knights. Following a good performance, Graves played 26 games for the Avalanche in the 2018-19 season.
2019-20 Breakout Season
Graves entered the 2019-20 season with low expectations. Yet, the left-handed defenseman exceeded them by a mile with an impressive breakout campaign alongside the rookie defenseman, Cale Makar. Graves posted the best plus/minus in the NHL with a plus-40. Additionally, he used all of his impressive 6-foot-5 frame to block 150 shots, sixth-most leaguewide.
His presence was felt on the penalty kill as well. The 25-year-old averaged 2:47 per game shorthanded — the second-highest on the team only behind veteran Erik Johnson. While the Avalanche’s penalty kill improved dramatically to 14th in the NHL, allowing 19 fewer goals than the previous season, Graves played a crucial role in that matter.
His success did not end in the regular season. Following the injury to Johnson, a significant void was left for Graves to fill on the defense. He led the Avalanche in blocked shots with 37 and in shorthanded ice time with 3:35 per game. He proved to be a versatile defenseman and perfect running mate for 2019-20 Calder Trophy recipient Makar. He provides support that allows Makar to exploit his offensive skills.
This successful approach was taken by the Ottawa Senators last decade with defenseman Erik Karlsson. From 2013 to 2016, the two-time Norris Trophy winner had the best stretch of his career with 222 points in 246 games. His running mate for 65.5 percent of those games was Marc Methot. During those three seasons, Karlsson ranked first in ice time for the Senators, with Methot second. Overall, Ottawa found a perfectly balanced partnership that allowed Karlsson to blossom offensively into a superstar. Jared Bednar should look into creating the same dynamic with Graves and Makar in the future.
Expanding His Role
Besides being Makar’s running mate, Graves’ role could expand next season. With the recent departure of Russian bruiser Nikita Zadorov, there’s a void of 175 hits. Given Graves and Zadarov both have the same impressive 6-foot-5 and 220-pound frame, Graves should be able to step up in that physical role.
“He bolstered our offense on the back end and is a big, powerful defender who earned his way into a top role on our blue line this past season.”Avalanche General Manager Joe Sakic
Expect the 25-year-old to be on the first penalty kill unit again. Perhaps Graves will get some playing time on the second power-play unit as well. He possesses a cannon of a shot that could prove useful from the point. Some may question the length and money of his extension given he only played 105 games at the NHL level, including the playoffs. However, focusing on the small sample size is wrong. Instead, recognize the incredible success he had alongside Makar.
Graves experienced a tremendous breakout season that showed his versatility. His success in 2019-20 was not an anomaly — it’s the new standard for his play. Considering he will play on the top pairing for Colorado, his annual average value of $3.16 million will be a bargain for the next three seasons.