The Ryan Reaves experience isn’t going well for the Maple Leafs so far

The Ryan Reaves experience isn’t going well for the Maple Leafs so far

It’s tempting to think that Ryan Reaves confronting Brad Marchand for injuring Timothy Liljegren in Boston would have justified the three-year contract the Maple Leafs gave the 36-year-old in the summer.

An altercation with Marchand, however, wouldn’t change the concerning reality of what’s gone down on the ice for Reaves over his first 10 games as a Leaf. In short, a pretty bleak experience so far.

The Leafs have been outscored 6-0 with Reaves on the ice this season. Opponents have controlled 64 percent of the expected goals. Reaves has yet to register a point and has landed only four shots on goal with six attempts.

Fourth lines featuring Reaves have been sinkholes for the Leafs, units where possession has gone to die.

The first incarnation, which saw David Kämpf centering Reaves and speedster Noah Gregor, was disastrous: The Leafs were out-chanced 16-7, outscored 3-0, and emerged with a shocking 27 percent of the expected goals, per Evolving Hockey.

Kämpf-led lines had been good at digging their way out of defensive zone quicksand. Head coach Sheldon Keefe couldn’t use the line that way with Reaves on it — which led to Kämpf (!) leading the team in offensive zone faceoffs early on.

After moving Kämpf into the third centre spot, Keefe tried 19-year-old Fraser Minten between Reaves and Gregor briefly (about four minutes) before pivoting to Pontus Holmberg.

The results were poor still as the Leafs won just 32 percent of the expected goals, according to Evolving Hockey.

Fourth lines for the Leafs have served no function to this point. They haven’t generated any offence, or even much offensive zone time for that matter, while getting lit up on defence. Reaves’ lack of speed and skill has been central to those issues.

The Leafs have had to chase the game when he’s out there, not unlike what happened with former Leaf Colton Orr years ago.

And that’s with Keefe doing what he can to protect Reaves: Only Auston Matthews has a higher (slightly) offensive zone faceoff percentage (56.5 percent) among Leaf forwards than Reaves (56.3). And because the Leafs coach has no longer been able to rely on his third and fourth lines for defensive purposes, he’s had to lean on Matthews-led units for more onerous duty there, which has at least factored into that line’s quiet start to the season. (They finally broke out with two goals against the Bruins.)

The Maple Leafs signed Ryan Reaves to a three-year, $4.05-million contract in the offseason.

According to the NHL’s new stats portal, Reaves has spent over 43 percent of his time on ice in the defensive zone. League average for a forward at even strength is 40.9 percent.

This is the first season, of course, of Reaves’ three-year contract. He turns 37 in January. He’s the 11th-oldest forward in the league.

Reaves’ start to the season looks remarkably similar to the way he began last fall for the New York Rangers.

In his first 12 games of the 2022-23 season, the Rangers were outscored 6-1 when Reaves was on the ice. Expected goals sat bleakly around 32 percent. Reaves didn’t register a point and produced only three shots on five attempts.

New York stopped playing him — and then dealt him to the Minnesota Wild in late November.

Things improved for Reaves with the Wild; he produced the odd bit of offence and plenty of physicality, and crucially, Minnesota kept things square when he was out there.

The Leafs were hoping for that when they signed Reaves.

“He can still get on the forecheck, makes things difficult for the opposition, and it gives us a little bit of a different look on our lower lines,” new Leafs GM Brad Treliving said shortly after the signing was announced on July 1, the first of the day for the Leafs.

That, plus some noise from Reaves for a dressing room that Treliving deemed too quiet.

Reaves has brought some spunk that way. But, as expected, he’s been a drain on a Leafs’ attack that’s gotten virtually nothing from the bottom half of the forward group. (And as the incident with Liljegren demonstrates, the supposed intimidation factor with Reaves hasn’t mattered.)

In Boston, Keefe noted his desire for the Leafs to spend more time as a team in the offensive zone. He wanted all four lines to do that. It hasn’t been possible in part (the third line has also been a problem) because any momentum stops right then and there when the Reaves line is out there.

When the Leafs signed Reaves, it was tempting to think that his contract wasn’t all that big of a deal — just $1.35 million on the cap. It, however, has already led to the team dumping the more useful Sam Lafferty for flexibility purposes.

The Leafs could have almost had two forwards playing for the NHL minimum — like the recently signed Sam Gagner and Danton Heinen — who brought more value with the money they allocated to Reaves.

This is only the regular season, mind you, not the playoffs when Reaves’ presence in the lineup figures to become even more problematic.

Keefe scratched similar players (Kyle Clifford, Wayne Simmonds) in the past. Can he do that with his new GM’s No. 1 offseason target? There’s not much else the Leafs coach can do with his fourth line otherwise in terms of personnel. Scratching Reaves might be unavoidable if this continues, but would look awful on Treliving and the front office.

Maybe Reaves, as an older player, just needs more time to get going as appeared to happen with Minnesota.

Bigger picture, the obvious way out for the Leafs is to bury Reaves’ contract in the minors. All but $200K can be excised from the cap. (He may get claimed on waivers.) But again, that feels highly unlikely for a player the GM seems to value.

So what do the Leafs do? Probably nothing. Just hope that somehow things get a lot better.

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