Rangers Need Reaves to Be More Than Just an Enforcer

Ryan Reaves cut an imposing figure at New York Rangers training camp this week, intimidation in a Blueshirt, the kind of player his new team hasn’t had in years.

Reaves’ late July addition was perhaps an obvious one, the most notable personnel move in a long-overdue muscular makeover on Broadway that followed a clearly-related changing of the guard in the front office – and an undertaking that could no longer be put off.

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Yes, the Rangers desperately need Reaves for what he can do when Tom Wilson or Matt Martin or any number of Boston Bruins act out and try to take liberties with his new teammates, something that has gone on far too long and far too frequently. Solely for that reason, the acquisition of Reaves for a 2022 third-round pick is worthwhile.

Ryan Reaves Vegas Golden Knights
New Rangers forward Ryan Reaves with the Golden Knights (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Yet Reaves’ pugilistic prowess and reputation as perhaps the most feared fighter in the NHL obscures the fact that he can bring considerably more than that to his team. Those other attributes, the Rangers may find out during the 2021-22 season, could prove to be just as important to them as what Reaves is able to do with his fists.

Rangers Want Reaves’ Edge to Rub Off on Team

Last week’s impromptu tutoring session on fighting, provided to apparently curious rookie forward Vitali Kravtsov, was somewhat amusing. Reaves, however, keenly aware of how his effect on a team goes beyond scrapping, knows that he’s not here to conduct a clinic with players who aren’t going to spend their careers dropping the gloves.

“In your face, physical, gritty. I think I just bring a little swag to the team, I think that’s something maybe that’s been missing here a little bit the last couple years, is a little bit of pushback,” Reaves said during last week’s training camp media availability. “There’s some physical teams in this division, and there’s been (Rangers) games where maybe there’s not that pushback you need in some of those games.

“Sometimes games can get out of control, sometimes just that style of play can push you out of a game, and so, I try and lead the way day in and day out with the physical play; when something happens on the ice I’m always gonna stick up for a teammate.”

There’s more.

“We gotta get loud on the bench, get loud on the ice. I’m gonna be the first guy to chirp somebody and get in their face and give ’em a facewash or whatever it has to be to get the boys going.”

Such is life in the NHL when not too many people you play against can impose their physical will on you.

Related: Rangers’ Longtime Failure to Protect Players Led to Wilson Incident

Reaves understands that his new club doesn’t want him to exist on an island as solely an enforcer, deployed only to strike fear into opponents. The 11-year veteran knows the Rangers need to develop a long-awaited mindset that none of their players will allow anyone to push them around, whether they’re proficient fighters or not. That’s what Reaves especially wants to impart on his younger teammates, and perhaps was the underlying reason for spending that time with Kravtsov mid-practice.

Ryan Reaves Vegas Golden Knights
Reaves plays against the Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Rangers haven’t had the kind of attitude Reaves is talking about for awhile. The last time was the Black-and-Blueshirts era of the early 2010s, when Mike Rupp, Brandon Prust and a bunch of hard-nosed players helped establish a reputation of a club that couldn’t be backed down with a little bit of chippy play.

Reaves’ Leadership, Sense of Humor in Demand at Madison Square Garden

New coach Gerard Gallant, himself a physical former NHL player who demands his teams play in the same image and who coached Reaves for parts of three seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights, hopes the big man gets help with that endeavor in New York. Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais, Patrik Nemeth, Jarred Tinordi and Dryden Hunt also arrived this offseason as the Rangers work to transform their style to counter physically tougher opponents.

Gallant also knows what Reaves can add in the dressing room and off the ice. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Winnipeg native is a leader, the kind of strong voice that’s necessary for a youthful group which has reportedly finally decided to get around to naming a captain after three-plus years without one. You can never have enough steadying influences on a roster.

“I think I’m the oldest guy on the team by five years (34), so I bring a little bit of the off ice too,” a smiling Reaves said to some laughter from the assembled media. “I play Daddy a little bit. In Vegas, a lot of the young guys came to me with basically any problem they ever had. I though they needed a team service guy after that.

“I try and help, especially the young guys for sure, I try to help on and off the ice with whatever they need.”

Barclay Goodrow Tampa Bay Lightning
Forward Barclay Goodrow, signed to a six-year contract by the Rangers in July (Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the youthful Blueshirts also take to Reaves’ lighter side? They’ll likely have no choice. A quick YouTube search paints a picture of a heavyweight prankster and free-spirited personality, as there are numerous videos of him hilariously interrupting teammates’ interviews in multiple fashions and terrifying them by dressing up in Golden Knight armor before leaping out at them in the dressing room. In perhaps his most “disturbing” effort, Reaves leaves ex-Penguins teammate Phil Kessel petrified after waiting in his hotel room and jumping at him while wearing a clown mask, with the enforcer and a still-scared Kessel laughing uncontrollably after the fact.

The Rangers need that too, someone who can keep things light under the white-hot spotlight of the biggest media market in sports. For the cost of a mid-round draft pick, they get one of the NHL’s toughest guys on the ice, and a tone-setter and great teammate off of it. All of that can go a long way toward driving the kind of mood and chemistry around a club that Gallant and first-year general manager Chris Drury, who consummated the deal for Reaves, are looking for as this new regime steers the Rangers into the future.

Oh yeah, there’s one more slightly important element the Rangers are getting with Reaves: He can actually play. A freight-train forechecker and devastating hitter, Reaves is a stronger skater than advertised. He’s a force along the boards and can present a major problem for opposing defensemen trying to dislodge him from in front of the net, where he hunts around for tip-ins and loose pucks.

That north-south, hard-edged game eluded former coach David Quinn’s attempts to instill it in his rosters, but Reaves thinks his efforts in that area can rub off on the Rangers.

“It’s gonna be getting the puck in deep, making (defensemen) very scared to go back and get it,” said Reaves, who has 49 goals and 52 assists in his career. “I think when, if I’m playing like that day in and day out, every single shift, eventually it starts to trickle to other lines. Those lines start chipping (it into the offensive zone) and they try and go get the puck. Well, now those “D” don’t know who’s on the ice and maybe they’re a little more scared even when another line’s out on the ice.

“I try and kind of set that standard and kind of set the tone for other lines and make the other team a little uneasy.”

Who was the Rangers’ last really disruptive player on the forecheck? Sean Avery? It’s been a while.

Reaves Was at His Best Under Gallant With Golden Knights

Gallant, under whom Reaves compiled his two best seasons in 2018-19 and 2019-20 (Gallant was fired 49 games into the ’19-’20 season), had No. 75 on the right wing of a heavy fourth line that included Blais at left wing and holdover Kevin Rooney at center for Tuesday’s preseason game against the Bruins.

“It’s been going pretty good,” Blais said of the trio. “We’re three big guys, and I know we’re going to put pucks deep and wear D’s down. (Reaves) is a big boy, and he skates really well. Me and Rooney are pretty excited to play with him and if we support each other we will be really successful.”

Gallant is sure to look at the fourth line as a fluid situation if necessary, but keeping Reaves – who spoke of his excitement over playing for Gallant again during media day – as a fixture in the lineup is surely a priority for the coach, just as it was with the Golden Knights. The Rangers are trying to buck a trend of failed enforcer experiments since the Prust-Rupp days – when they tried to add an enforcer at all – which often occurred in part because the players brought in generally lacked defined roles and didn’t integrate well with the team, given their limited contributions.

Vegas Golden Knights Gerard Gallant
New Rangers coach Gerard Gallant with the Golden Knights (AP Photo/David Becker)

Reaves, by contrast, has plenty to potentially offer beyond fighting. Still, his more skilled teammates are sure to appreciate the comfort level he brings for them on the ice, starting Oct. 13 against Wilson’s Washington Capitals in what should be appointment viewing for NHL fans.

“Doesn’t matter what the player is, what team it is, whether we’re out east or out west, I’m holding everybody accountable,” Reaves said. “It doesn’t matter what happened last year, doesn’t matter what happened 10 years ago, it’s what happens this season, and everyone’s gonna be held accountable when they go up against our team.”

That should be music to the ears of a Rangers organization that hasn’t been able to make that claim in some time.

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