When the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Ryan Reaves at the NHL draft general manager Jim Rutherford basically said that he was tired of seeing his team get pushed around every night.
That comment — and the trade itself — came just a few weeks after he was highly critical of the league’s treatment of star players by saying this to Ken Campbell of the Hockey News.
“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play. ‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”
Translation: If the league won’t protect our guys, we will find somebody to do it for us.
Enter Reaves, one of the biggest, strongest, and most physical players in the NHL.
On Saturday night, just his third game with his new team, he instantly became one of the most popular players in the city by getting into two fights, scoring a goal, trash talking the Predators bench, being named the game’s No. 1 star, and then conducting his post-game locker room interview while wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet. During the game, a 4-0 Penguins win in a Stanley Cup Final rematch with the Nashville Predators, his name echoed throughout PPG Paints Arena after each of his fights and after a late-game dust up with long-time Penguins nemesis Scott Hartnell.
If he puts Brandon Dubinsky in a headlock the next time the Penguins play Columbus they might already have the statue in the place.
Overall, the game was a case study in what a player like Reaves can do.
And also what he can not prevent.
At the end of the night pretty much everybody saw what they wanted to see from the game.
If you’re a Penguins fan, Penguins management or most especially a Penguins player you saw retribution. You saw a player stand up for your stars and get a pound of flesh in return. It was a message, and it was probably satisfying, especially in a win.
But, on the other side of it, the only reason he had to distribute some retribution and get that pound of flesh in return is because chippy stuff was still happening on the ice to your star players.
If you belong to the school of thought that fighters don’t deter violence and cheap shots (the side I fall on) you still saw Sidney Crosby get punched in the head during a scrum. You still saw him take the butt-end of a stick to the face during a face-off. You still saw Evgeni Malkin get run behind the net and then later in the game get held down behind the play. You saw Hartnell high-stick Crosby while Reaves was skating on his wing, and after Reaves had previously attempted to draw Hartnell into a fight earlier in the game.
Those two fights — one with Cody McLeod and another with Austin Watson) and one attempted fight didn’t make anybody on Nashville think twice about doing anything.
There is an argument to be made all it did was make the game nastier (the aforementioned sh–show that Jim Rutherford talked about last postseason) than it otherwise would have been.
As Saturday night showed teams are still going to try to push the Penguins around if they want to. They are still going to have Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang in their crosshairs. That will never change and there isn’t a single player in the league that can make them stop.
The wild thing about Reaves’ game on Saturday is that he actually played a really good game. He only played seven minutes, but they were an effective seven minutes. When he wasn’t fighting, he was physical, but in a useful sense. He was aggressive on the forecheck, he skated well, and yes, he scored a goal, too. If he can provide something like that every single night he would absolutely be a useful fourth-line addition. But that doesn’t seem to be the expectation for him. That isn’t what anybody wants to see. They want to see the gloves off and skulls getting crushed whenever Sidney Crosby gets hit.
But there is a delicate balance between being the guy to stand up for your teammates and the guy that crosses the line and puts your team shorthanded because you’re trying for vigilante justice.
It did not hurt the Penguins on Saturday, and, admittedly, it all made for a pretty entertaining spectacle inside the building.
But there might come a time where it does hurt them because there is a fine line between standing up for yourself and letting things get out of control. (Remember, the Blues lost a playoff game last season in large part because Reaves took an extra penalty during a scrum, leading to a power play goal against in what would go on to be a one-goal loss).
One of the biggest flaws the Penguins had toward the tail end of the Dan Bylsma era was that they were too easy to rile up and they would become too preoccupied with getting even when somebody wronged them on the ice. They would become maniacs and lose sight of the task at hand (winning) because they had to respond physically. Remember that 2012 playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers? Total disaster.
Over the past two seasons they let that stuff go, not only because they didn’t have anyone on the team to answer it, but also just the overall mindset of the team.
Did that mean teams would push them around a bit? It sure did. But do you know what teams didn’t do? Beat them when it count.