In the 2021 offseason, the New Jersey Devils took a swing at improving their defensive core. They accomplished that, signing the best defenseman on the market, Dougie Hamilton, to a seven-year contract worth $63 million. However, a month before that, the team made their first move of the summer, acquiring defenseman Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche.
In his first season for the Black and Red, the 26-year-old from Nova Scotia impressed, setting career-highs in many categories. Next summer, Graves is set to become a free agent for the first time in his career. This makes the 2022-23 season even more important as he looks to grow his game and remain with the team.
Graves’ Long Road to the Pros
While Graves had spent most of his NHL career with the Avalanche, he was drafted by the New York Rangers in the fourth round in 2013. Coincidentally, that draft was held at the Prudential Center, his future home rink. He spent five years in the Rangers development pipeline before he was shipped to Colorado for Chris Bigras.
At the time of the trade, Colorado had begun their rise to the top of the NHL. In 2016-17, they were not only the worst team in the league but one of the worst in league history. They only put up 48 points that season, the fewest in a full 82-game season since the expansion Atlanta Thrashers. At the 2018 trade deadline, they decided to acquire Graves, and just two months later, the Avalanche surprisingly made the playoffs but lost in the first round.
Graves saw his first NHL action in 2018-19, playing in 26 games for Colorado. He scored his first goal on Jan. 4 in a victory against the club that drafted him. The following season, he made the opening-night roster and spent most of the season paired with future Norris Trophy-winner Cale Makar. He enjoyed a break-out campaign, scoring 9 goals and 17 assists and leading the NHL in plus-minus with a plus-40. He then played 15 playoff games, scoring three points and a plus-9.
His production dipped the following season, with only 15 points in 54 games. However, the Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy but again came up short in the playoffs, falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round. With the expansion draft looming, several names were brought up in trade rumors, but Graves was the first to be moved, joining the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2018.
New Start in New Jersey
The Devils took a chance on Graves, sending over a second-round draft pick in 2021 and prospect Mikhail Maltsev. Almost immediately, he made an impact. In the team’s first two games, he put up three points and was a plus-7, as the team went 2-0. While the Devils were not as skilled as the Avalanche, Graves was arguably their most reliable defenseman. He scored six goals and 22 assists in his debut season and set career-highs in games played (75), points (28), average time on ice (20:43), and had the fewest penalty minutes of his career (24, excluding his partial 2018-19 campaign).
Entering the 2022-23 season, his second with the Devils, Graves will have an extra chip on his shoulder. Not only is he due for a contract next summer, but he also watched his former team win the Stanley Cup. He spent most of last season paired with Hamilton, his fellow 2021 offseason acquisition. But when Hamilton was injured, he worked with Jonas Siegenthaler, who just signed a multi-year contract extension to stay in New Jersey.
With Hamilton fully recovered, Graves will likely spend most of his time paired with him. The former fourth-round pick is entering his prime at 27 years old and could easily have a career year. According to Hockey Reference, the first four years of his career are most comparable to John Carlson. If the Devils can find that Carlson-type player in Graves, they will surely want to re-sign him.
Graves is getting the best opportunity of his career with the Devils, and with an improved roster, he should see an uptick in his offensive production. Expect to see him on the Devils’ top pairing this season, which will help him showcase his talents to the Devils and the countless other teams that might be interested in his services.
Erik Johnsen is one of the NJ Devils writer for The Hockey Writers. He is also a writer for Triple Play Newsletter. Erik is a 2022 Rider University graduate, and co-hosts a podcast called Too Many Men.