Why Ryan Reaves’ penalty-prone style could be problematic for the Golden Knights

The 31-year-old forward has taken three minor penalties in just 16:30 of ice time through two games with the Golden Knights.

Ryan Reaves has played two games in a Vegas Golden Knights sweater and has already been extremely noticeable on the ice. While that may seem like a positive thing, in Reaves’ case, it is not.

The Knights acquired Reaves Feb. 23 as part of a three-way deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators. Knights general manager George McPhee has made it clear that Reaves will be in the lineup moving forward.

Reaves brings physicality, toughness and grit to a Knights lineup that has relied on speed and skill all year. He’s a typical fourth-line role player aside from the fact that while many fourth-liners in the league are specialists on the penalty kill, Reaves does not kill penalties; he serves them.

Breaking down Reaves’ penalties in Pittsburgh

Reaves played 58 games with the Penguins this season, accruing four goals, eight points, a minus-nine rating, 34 shots and 84 penalty minutes while averaging 6:45 of ice time per game. He averaged 1.45 penalty minutes per game, and his 1.84 minor penalties per 60 minutes ranked fifth in the league among players who played in at least 50 games.

His 84 penalty minutes consisted of six fighting majors, 12 minor penalties and three misconducts, and 80 of the 84 minutes came in the 2017 portion of the season. During that time, he averaged 2.3 minor penalties per 60 minutes, which was the highest in the league among players who played in at least 35 games.

Four of the 12 minor penalties were for roughing (one double-minor), two were for holding, two were for hooking and he earned one each for cross-checking, slashing, elbowing and high-sticking.

But what makes his tendency to take penalties despite limited ice time especially troublesome is the fact that the Knights have a middle-of-the-pack penalty kill.

Killing time, killing penalties

In Reaves’ time in Pittsburgh, the Penguins maintained a top-five penalty kill with an 82.8 percent kill rate. Before acquiring Reaves, Vegas ranked 16th on the penalty kill, operating at 80.6 percent.

However, between Feb. 1 and Feb. 25 (the day before Reaves’ first game as a Knight), Vegas had the third-worst penalty kill in the league (70.4 percent). If you include Feb. 26 through today’s date, Vegas finds itself dead last in the league with a 70.3 percent success rate after killing just 26 of 37 power plays in February.

Part of this can be attributed to the loss of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, one of Vegas’ specialists on the penalty kill. He has missed the last five games, during which time the Knights have killed just nine of 14 penalties (64.3 percent).

Fortunately, Vegas has been very disciplined this season. Prior to the trade, the Knights racked up the second-fewest penalty minutes in the league with just 418 in 61 games. They took the third-fewest penalties (196) and the fourth-fewest minor penalties (183), as well as the third-fewest majors (8). Vegas ranked 27th in minor penalties per 60 minutes (2.91), and the Knights were one of only three teams to not earn a misconduct all season. On his own, Reaves took three.

Reaves’ first two games as a Knight

Vegas gave up two power play goals in four opportunities in the home-and-home series against Los Angeles, both of which were scored while Reaves sat in the penalty box.

He played a team-low 7:12 in his first outing (not counting Oscar Lindberg’s 1:25 before he was injured) and followed that up with a team-low 9:18 the following night in Vegas. However, he still managed 360 seconds of penalties in just 990 seconds of ice time, which isn’t a promising ratio.

As a member of the Knights, Reaves is averaging 10.91 minor penalties per 60 minutes. Clearly, he hasn’t even gotten 20 minutes of ice time, so this number is extremely distorted. But it could be indicative of what is to come.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Reaves brings with him to Vegas not just toughness and grit, but also his reputation.

“I don’t give a damn ‘bout my reputation”

Regardless of the logo on the front of his sweater, Reaves is one of those players who carries a reputation that, like it or not, affects calls on the ice. This is nothing new for Reaves, and it’s definitely not new to the NHL.

One of the most well-known examples of “reputation calls” is Detroit’s Tomas Holmstrom, who used to park himself in front of the crease and get called for goalie interference even when no contact was made.

But it’s evident league-wide that certain players build up reputations for being “dirty” or aggressive, and they rarely get the benefit of the doubt on questionable calls.

While referees may or may not deserve more credit than this, we have already seen how questionable or borderline calls tend to not go in Reaves’ favor.

Some would argue that both of the penalties Reaves took Tuesday night were borderline, though it’s fair to say that at least one of the calls was controversial. It even drove Knights head coach Gerard Gallant to take a bench minor for “Abuse of Officials” when he argued the call, which set up the 5-on-3 power play goal that put the game out of reach for Vegas.

But regardless of the nature of the calls, Reaves has made several poor decisions on the ice that have led to costly minor penalties, including hooking Anze Kopitar Monday night in Los Angeles.

Why Gallant put Reaves on the ice when Kopitar was already out there is one thing, but it’s another thing entirely that Reaves’ poor positioning, poor defensive ability and poor decision-making set up the turning point in the game. The Kings scored on that power play and eventually overcame a 2-0 deficit and won the game in overtime.

Similarly, delivering the check (deemed boarding) on Kings defenseman Derek Forbort Tuesday night was another poor decision.

Taking an offensive-zone penalty when your team is trailing late in the third period is not an effective use of limited ice time, to say the least.

The other penalty he took just a few minutes after Vegas killed off the boarding call was more careless than anything. But it serves to show how little room for error or doubt the referees afford Reaves.

As a result of the call, Gallant’s composure unraveled, as did the Knights’ chances of a comeback, and it all started with Reaves.

His style of play makes him more susceptible to taking penalties, and the fact that he is labeled on the ice because of past behavior won’t do him or the Knights any favors.

If it ain’t broke

Gallant wants Reaves to continue to play his heavy, physical game without changing “the style [the Knights] play.”

However, the product on the ice Tuesday night in Vegas was not speed or skill-driven. Simply put, it was not Golden Knights hockey.

But Reaves was just playing his brand of hockey.

“I’m not going to apologize for any one of those penalties,” he said after the game. “They did cost the game, but that’s my style of play. I bring energy, I bring physicality, and that’s going to continue every team we play.”

Even if McPhee and Gallant value what Reaves can offer this team in an intense playoff setting, shifting gears away from a system and style that has produced the most successful inaugural campaign in the history of the NHL is counterintuitive.

After all, the Penguins, who traded a first-round pick for Reaves last summer, won back-to-back Cups with skill and speed. Reaves was not part of either Cup run, and Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford ultimately decided it wasn’t necessary for Reaves to be part of this year’s playoff run either.

Plus, if Reaves’ role is to protect the other players on the team, what does it say that two Knights (Lindberg and James Neal) got injured in Reaves’ first game with the team? For one thing, it says that even with Reaves in the lineup, other teams are still more than capable of hitting and injuring the Golden Knights. In fact, it could be argued that Reaves’ antics will only encourage more cheap shots from the opposing team, thus causing more harm than preventing it. It’s understandable to want to have someone on the ice who can stick up for and defend his teammates, but to imply that Reaves can prevent injury and prevent other teams from targeting Vegas’ star players is misguided wishful thinking.

What does it all mean?

It’s way too soon to make any judgments about Reaves, the trade or his effect on this team. Having said that, there’s no denying that it’s a problem when a player prone to taking penalties, for whatever reason, joins a team with a mediocre penalty kill. Add to the fact that he doesn’t mesh with the identity of the team and has already started to change the team’s style and you’ve got some genuine reason for concern.

The final stretch of the season may not be do-or-die for the Knights’ hopes of making the playoffs, but it’s no time for the Knights to take their foot off the gas. Vegas has proven to be dominant on home ice all year, posting a 24-6-2 record at T-Mobile Arena. Therefore, getting home-ice advantage is crucial for the Knights. As teams like Nashville and Los Angeles heat up, Vegas must remain vigilant.

While Reaves is not going to singlehandedly destroy what the Knights have built, a borderline roughing call here or a careless cross-check there could be the difference between winning and losing, or between a regulation win and a three-point contest. Every point matters at this time of year, and so does every shift. Even though Reaves only gets so many, the Knights are 0-1-1 with him in the lineup, and Vegas can ill afford to let more points slip through the cracks.