The New York Rangers announced on Monday that they signed Val-d’Or defenseman and 2013 4th round selection Ryan Graves to an entry-level contract.
SIGNING: #NYR have agreed to terms with defenseman Ryan Graves. Graves was originally selected by the Rangers in the 4th round in 2013 draft
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) March 17, 2014
Graves, 18, is required to spend another season in the QMJHL (unless he beats all odds and makes the NHL roster next season), so this is mostly a formality. Still, it’s indicative of the tremendous progress he’s made this season, as the Rangers could have held off another year before committing to him.
I actually spoke to Ryan during the Olympic break with the intention of putting an article together, but the trading deadline plus personal stuff got in the way. So the rest of this article is going to serve as a hybrid profile/scouting report.
Ryan Graves was in the same building and participating in the same event on draft day as fellow draftees Anthony Duclair and Pavel Buchnevich were. Duclair and Buchnevich, both taken by the Rangers in the third round, were highly touted prospects who probably fell much lower than they should have. Graves was in a different situation, however. While a perfectly capable hockey player himself, Graves was a quiet, under-the-radar kid from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia; a town with fewer than 7,000 residents. Getting drafted in any capacity was a huge accomplishment and became a big deal in his hometown. The fourth round was right around where he expected to go.
“I was at the draft… the first two rounds I wasn’t expecting to hear my name at all and it was pretty relaxed,” said Graves. “Third round was a bit closer to where I was ranked so I was more alert.”
Like the other Ranger draftees, Graves made the trip to New York City almost immediately after to familiarize himself with his new home.
“(Yarmouth) is a really small town… I’d never been to New York. I went to Times Square and walked outside of Madison Square Garden,” Graves said. I’d never seen anything like that before. I wouldn’t say I was ‘shocked’ but it was a pretty surreal experience.”
Graves took part in the Traverse City Tournament, which he admitted was a slightly higher level of competition than he was used to, before making his way back to Charlottetown and began his third season with the QMJHL franchise. Defenseman Jimmy Oligny, previously a fixture on the team’s defense, was traded, and Graves was pushed into a first-pairing role. Often alongside 20-year-old overager and Dallas Stars draft pick Troy Vance, Graves not only proved skeptics wrong but quickly developed into the team’s most reliable defenseman. Graves played well defensively but also earned some powerplay minutes and potted a few goals with his devestating slapshot.
For some time Graves was a key piece for a thriving Charlottetown team. They were in the BMO CHL Top 10 teams four weeks into the season and were one of the highest ranking QMJHL teams. However, they dropped off dramatically afterwards. By the QMJHL’s January 7th trading deadline the Islanders were below .500 and management decided to blow it up. Graves said he had heard that changes would be made but his partial no-trade clause meant his future was largely in his own control.
“When they approached me and said, ‘would you go to Val-d’Or?’ I wasn’t sure at first. It was hard to leave Charlottetown because I had good billets and I was familiar with everything. I liked the coaching staff and I had developed there from 16 into what I am now,” said Graves.
However, Graves saw the reality of the situation and recognized that moving on was perhaps in his best interest.
“They made all those trades and I realized they were going to struggle for the rest of the year and they were going to be good again when I wasn’t there anymore,” Graves said. “In that respect it was a pretty easy decision to come to Val-d’Or and be part of a team that has a real shot of going somewhere.”
Indeed, Val-d’Or do have a chance to win something meaningful. Already a prospering team, the addition of Graves and others boosted the team up to third in the QMJHL standings. Les Foreurs won eight of the team’s final ten games and go into the playoffs one of the hottest teams in the CHL.
Graves noted the stark differences between Charlottetown and Val-d’Or, a town in Quebec, though he insists his billets and teammates have made the transition easy. It has also been an adjustment for Graves on the ice as well. Apart from different tactical deployments, Graves’ role for Les Foreurs is different. Whereas for Charlottetown Graves did a bit of everything, for Val-d’Or he’s a safety valve for defensive partner Randy Gazzola, who finished second among QMJHL defensemen in points. Graves acknowledged that this role suits him better in his development.
“I know that I want to play at that next level and be a professional hockey player, and offense isn’t going to really be a big part of my game. I’m going to be a shutdown defenseman. While I was in Charlottetown I was doing a little bit of both… a little bit of powerplay and offense. Now that I’m (in Val-d’Or) there’s no need. I can concentrate more on (the shutdown role).”
Comparing players is often a tricky and misleading task because no two players are identical. Graves mentioned Chris Pronger as someone he aspires to be like, though he certainly is not putting himself on Pronger’s level. Boston Bruins’ defenseman Adam McQuaid and former Rangers Michael Sauer might be two relatively accurate comparables. Like those two, Graves punishes forwards who dare try to beat him inside and who hover around the crease. He’s also put tremendous effort into improving his skating. He’ll of course never match the wheels of some of the elite skaters, but Graves has developed into a surprisingly agile skater for a guy of his size.
“When I came in as a 16-year-old I was just an okay skater at best and I worked extremely hard on that,” Graves said.
Graves spoke about fellow Rangers prospect Anthony Duclair, whom Graves has been matched up against multiple times this season, as an example of a speedy winger.
“When you’re playing against guys like Duclair who are so fast, you can’t take too many chances,” said Graves. I just have to keep a gap and be physical on him and he won’t get all his speed built up.”
Since the interview, Graves scored two goals and added six assists in twelve games to finish out the regular season after only have two points in his first 11 games with Val-d’Or. At this point the contract is merely a formality; Graves is not AHL eligible until the 2015-2016 season and will almost certainly spend another year in the QMJHL. He still has plenty of developing to do – something Graves readily acknowledges – but Graves has certainly increased his standing within the Rangers’ organization. Skjei and McIlrath are still top dogs, but Graves is quite safely in that next tier of defensive prospects and is one to keep an eye on for the future. Though he’s just worrying about winning a championship with Val-d’Or right now, he does aspire to become the kind of NHL defenseman that often turns into a fan favorite in New York.
“I just have to be a shutdown defenseman and play top lines every night… and be tough to play against. I want to be someone that, when other players come in, they know that it’s going to be a tough night playing against me,” Graves said.
Thanks To Ryan for contributing to this piece. Make sure to follow him on Twitter.
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