One of the more interesting storylines outside of Cale Makar’s rookie brilliance and Valeri Nichuskin’s resurgence is the emergence of Ryan Graves as a staple on the blue line for the Colorado Avalanche.
The tale of how Graves arrived in Colorado is well-known. Brought in at the NHL trade deadline in 2018 in a fresh start swap for another third year AHL defenseman Chris Bigras there were not many expectations placed on Graves. He had spent the entirety of his career up to that point with the New York Rangers organization and despite playing in over 200 AHL games over three seasons including an All-star selection in 2016 Graves never received a call-up to the NHL.
Opportunity is what he needed and in late December of 2018 the Avalanche would give Graves his NHL debut. It was the fifth game in that recall in which Graves scored his first NHL goal against the same Rangers club who had drafted him. Despite producing only 15 points in 53 games for the San Antonio Rampage and Colorado Eagles over two seasons the Avalanche made a decision to keep Graves on the NHL roster in February of that 2018-19 season in part because he would require waivers again to get sent to the Eagles. While he only scored five points in 26 games by playing sparingly down the stretch and none in the playoffs this set Graves up to have a shot at making the Avalanche full-time in the fall.
And that he did as the Avalanche liked enough of what they saw in Graves at the NHL level, and likely did not want to expose him to waivers again, so he made the NHL club out of camp and hasn’t looked back. With improved mobility and defensive game Graves is enjoying the opportunity to provide secondary offense to the tune of of eight goals, including his most recent seen below. His 19 total points on the year shows he’s seeing an offensive side of his game blossom like never before. Graves uses his hard shot from the point to create many of his points and averages just over two shots on goal per game.
Graves earned enough favor with the coaching staff to become a lineup regular with only one healthy scratch on the season and then beginning in December he saw an increase in usage. Since then Graves only trails Sam Girard in five-on-five time on ice with 17.28 minutes per game and he has been the most used on the penalty kill averaging 2:34 minutes per game in that span as well. On the season Graves holds a 51.68% Corsi for, a 50.5% expected goals rate and sees 44% of his starts in the offensive zone for an overall solid defensive performance.
By now most people have heard that Graves leads the NHL in plus/minus with a +34 which is four more than any other player in the league and 10 more than any Avalanche teammate. A reason for this is because he has spent the bulk of the season paired with Cale Makar for almost 300 even strength minutes together and that they are on the ice primarily with Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabe Landeskog but Graves will leave the ice in situations with the Avalanche netminder pulled. Still, with Makar the duo has only given up 11 goals, sports a 66% goals for ratio and a 53.58% Corsi for.
While it seems Graves has found a spot on Colorado’s blueline for the foreseeable future there is one issue pressing in the near term which is his future contract. His one year $735,000 contract will expire this summer and as a fifth year professional he has only two Restricted Free Agent years left. This may be the time his camp looks to cash in on a productive full-time NHL season as Graves’ 19 points already matches the career high of Pittsburgh’s Marcus Pettersson who just signed a five-year $20.1 M extension. Bigger questions loom the horizon in how to work in other young players such as Conor Timmins and Bowen Byram on the blueline and if Graves will be exposed in the upcoming Seattle expansion draft but for now the Avalanche are enjoying the increased depth and scoring on the back end which Graves has provided.