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New Jersey Devils UFA Profile: Ryan Graves

Today in our offseason coverage of potential free agents, I will be diving into Ryan Graves. He just turned 28 and is set to become an unrestricted free agent. How has he done, and should the Devils look to bring him back?

NHL: MAY 01 Eastern Conference First Round - Rangers at Devils Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This offseason, there is a lot of potential turnover in the New Jersey Devils’ roster, with a bunch of players becoming either restricted or unrestricted free agents. Tom Fitzgerald has a ton to think about as he looks to reconstruct this roster around a solid core to hopefully improve on the second-round exit we just witnessed.

According to Cap Friendly, there are 5 players who are set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason, 3 forwards and 2 defensemen. The two defenders, Ryan Graves and Damon Severson, are younger, neither being close to 30, so they are interesting cases to look at. Re-signing either one, or both, would not run the risk of an albatross contract simply because age is worsening the players’ impact over time. They might not live up to expectations, depending on the term and size of a potential deal, but it wouldn’t be like the Ondrej Palat deal from last offseason, where age is a significant concern as early as right now. That makes both more palatable, and potentially desirable in terms of bringing back on another deal.

Today, we are going to specifically take a look at Ryan Graves. What has he done in the past, how did he end up here, what impact has he had on the Devils, and what should Tom Fitzgerald do about him? I will look to tackle all of this, so let’s dive in.

Who is Ryan Graves?

Ryan Graves, with a birthday on May 21st, just turned 28 years old yesterday. The big, 6 foot 5 defenseman with a left-handed shot was originally drafted in the fourth round, pick 110 overall, of the 2013 NHL draft by the New York Rangers. He signed his ELC with New York a year later while still playing in the QMJHL. However, the ELC did not kick in until the 2015-16 season, when the three years started to tick down. During that time, from 2015-2018, he played exclusively in the AHL, never cracking the Rangers lineup.

In February of 2018, he was traded to Colorado in an AHL swap of players. However, once moving over, Ryan would be given a chance in Colorado and would showcase his worth. He would sign successive one-year deals in Colorado for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, both of which were basically prove-it deals. Both were valued well under $1 million. And he did well enough, playing in 26 games as a rookie in 2018-19 and then 69 games, close to a full season, in 2019-20. That season, he also played in 15 playoff games, producing 3 points in that time frame. He then went to arbitration with Colorado and earned himself a fat 3-year deal, with significantly more AAV than he had in the previous two. The deal with Joe Sakic came with a $3.1667 million annual value. In the first year of the deal, he made $2.5 million in actual value, and that rose to $4 million this past season. The deal itself was definitely in favor of Graves over the team. Being a short, three-year deal, it meant that he could become an unrestricted free agent faster than many other players do, and the annual value was significantly higher compared to previous deals he had. Clearly, his work in 2019-20 paid off.

In his remaining time in Colorado, under that new deal, he continued to produce solid, defensively strong numbers, even if he was not lighting up the score sheet. Across his time in Colorado, he maintained both a CF% and xGF% above 50% despite only getting around 50% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone. He was a solid contributor, if not a top-pairing type of defender. Sadly for him, he would be traded away from the eventual Stanley Cup champions, coming to the Devils in the 2021 offseason after having only played one year of that 3-year deal for the Avalanche. The Devils gave up Mikhail Maltsev and a 2nd rounder to acquire the d-man in hopes of boosting the team’s atrocious defensive numbers from the year prior. And with two years still on the deal, it was not a rental for NJ, but a guy they hoped could potentially add to this blue line for some time to come. However, if he did not, well it would only be two years at a reasonable AAV, so no true harm done.

Here was Graves’ card and reaction from JFresh when the trade took place:

What Has Graves Done as a Devil?

Graves has spent the last two seasons playing nightly on New Jersey’s blueline, much of that time coming as a 2nd pairing kind of guy, although he has moved around somewhat. In his first season in NJ, he spent most of his time playing with either Dougie Hamilton or Damon Severson. With Hamilton, that was a top pairing kind of job, but with Severson, it was not usually the case.

Here was his player card from Andy & Rono entering this past season, with a note that he should improve with a better team around him, which ended up being the case:

This past season, he spent significant minutes with John Marino in a 2nd pairing role, the two playing together for a whopping 840 minutes together at 5 on 5 play. While the two were not the most offensively inclined pairing you will see, in fact far from it, they were very solid defensively overall, with a 53.58 xGF% and a 52.23 CF% despite only having a 45.89 OZFO%. The two were used in defensive-heavy situations and were expected to tilt the ice back in NJ’s favor, and as the numbers show, they were able to do that more often than not.

Graves has also been utilized heavily on the penalty kill, with over 187 minutes in the regular season this year on the PK. This fact alone shows you some major growth he has had as a player when you compare his PK usage to what you see on JFresh’s player card after he was traded to NJ. Only John Marino had more minutes, and then only slightly more at 192, so Graves was utilized as much as anyone basically when it came to the PK. This speaks to his defensive prowess and job as a defensive defenseman more than anything else, taking the mantle from the likes of Andy Greene before him, if not quite as prolific as Greene was in his heyday (although he could possibly get there. Greene was dynamite well into this 30s).

Also, despite the injury in the playoffs during the Carolina series, Graves has generally been a very reliable player for the Devils, with 153 games played in the regular season across the last two seasons. That’s only 11 missed games in two seasons, so he is generally out there on a nightly basis eating up minutes.

Overall, here are some stats from his time in New Jersey from Natural Stat Trick, including the playoffs this year as a separate category:

Projected Impact Moving Forward

As a 28-year-old, the book on Graves is mostly written. Defensemen do usually take longer to develop than forwards do, and some players do bloom late, but most likely, the numbers we see with Graves over the last couple of seasons are what we should expect from him if Tom Fitzgerald does decide to bring him back. He will be solid defensively, with positive possession and expected goal metrics despite the majority of his faceoffs coming outside of the offensive zone, and he will contribute significant minutes on the penalty kill. He will generally perform well in a 2nd pairing role against the opposition’s middle 6, and can even handle playing against a top line if needed in defensive situations and on the penalty kill against the opposition’s top PP unit. He will also shoot the puck if he has it on the blue line, as he has racked up 237 regular season shots while a member of the Devils. But don’t expect too much offense; he is a defensively-minded defenseman who will focus on protecting his ground first and foremost, with the offense coming as a bonus. I would expect Graves to continue to see 2nd pairing minutes with the likes of John Marino, as a pairing like that works well to mitigate offense against and helps suppress attempts against, and ultimately, goals against. Marino himself is signed for four more years with New Jersey, so there is a ton of time for those two to play together and work their magic.

When Fitzgerald traded for Graves in 2021, he did so to bolster a shallow blueline and provide some defensively-sound play for a team that was giving up too many goals and was unable to tilt the ice in its favor. In these terms, the trade was successful for NJ, as Graves has done exactly that. His GF% was significantly below his xG% in the 2021-22 season and the playoff run this year, but his expected numbers have always been solid and represent a player that you can run out there for 20+ minutes a night and not be worried that he is going to sink your ship. He will keep things afloat, even if he will not steer the ship to victory himself (that was a miserable metaphor, my apologies).

The best thing going for Graves is his age. At 28 years old, the production we have seen from him over his last three years, two with the Devils and his last with Colorado, is indicative of what we should expect for at least the next 4-5 seasons, if not longer. While every person is different, defenders with his game can often last into their mid-30s without seeing a major dip in production, as their game is not predicated on swift movements to score goals. This means that any team looking to sign him can give him more term, which would lessen the AAV they would need to offer, thus making it a win-win for everyone. The team could get a lower AAV which would help with the cap, while Graves would get the security of longer term with a higher overall payout. I’m not advocating giving him a 7-year deal here, but if you want to offer him, let’s say, 5 years, you could do so without having to worry about the last year or two being an albatross.

Because he is unrestricted, he does not have to look strictly at New Jersey either. Any other team looking to court Graves onto their team would be doing so for a similar purpose. He has shown a propensity for shooting the puck, and other teams could look to draw out more offense from him, but that side of his game is limited and will most likely remain that way. Any other team that wants Graves is going to try to bring him in so that he can bolster the blue line, provide strong defensive numbers in a top 4 role, and provide quality minutes on the penalty kill. The Devils wanted all of this a couple of years ago when his PK numbers were much less certain, and he delivered. Any other team would expect a similar return as the Devils have gotten.

Comparables and Potential Value

In terms of comparable players and what Graves’ value might be on the open market, we can try to look at contracts given out to comparable defensemen who were unrestricted free agents around the same age as Graves. They aren’t exact, of course, but if we can take a look at similar defensemen who were unrestricted free agents in their late-20s, we can get a potential read on what Graves might end up signing for, with the Devils or elsewhere. I did a comparables search on Cap Friendly, which has a pretty decent tool for it. I came up with the following list here, which I will discuss more about after:

So there are two outliers here which I will mention first. I added in Andy Greene even though it was back in 2014 because it was the Devils and because Greene had a similar role on the team that Graves does now. He was a defensive-minded guy that solidified the blue line. The difference there, of course, is that Greene was dynamite in the playoffs for NJ back in 2011-12, and he became team captain a year after signing this deal. Graves did not have the playoff success that Greene did, and he will not become the captain of this team no matter how long he is here, although that is no fault of his own. But I still felt it was worth adding Greene’s contract here for reference. The other outlier case is Rasmus Ristolainen. I added it because it fits in terms of Risto’s age, position, and general similarity in experience. But the minute that contract was signed, everyone absolutely obliterated Philadelphia on a terrible contract, as Risto is someone analytics people love to roast, he really is not good. However, he was signed like he actually is good, so I still think the contract is worthwhile as a comparison.

As you can see from the list, I tried to keep it within the last couple of years, although I felt Calvin De Haan’s deal was really close as a comparable so I threw it in. He was the closest in terms of games played, is a similar defenseman in terms of style, and his on-ice numbers at the same age with the Islanders weren’t too far off. The others are all very recent and involve defensemen of a similar age for the most part (I know Chiarot was 31, but again the other categories are close). All of these defensemen were unrestricted free agents, got either 4 or 5-year deals for similar term, and all were in the general range of $4-$5 million per year. You can nitpick each one, how some are not as close to Graves as others, as some players were in different situations or are different players. None of them are exact matches, I agree. However, when looked at in aggregate, I think it paints a pretty clear picture. The market for a defender like Ryan Graves, at his age, looks to be a 4 or 5-year deal in the range of $4-5 million per year. I think that checks out.

With Graves, I think there is a chance for some variation away from that slightly. I don’t really foresee him getting more than 5 years, but it isn’t out of the realm for Fitzgerald or a different GM to offer a 6th year. At 28, he would be under contract until 34 at that point, which is not unreasonable, he could still be very productive at that age, as good as he is now. I also could see it going more toward what Ristolainen got as opposed to Adam Larsson or Jake McCabe. He is coming off of a contract with a $3.1667 annual value and is bound to get more than that. Probably not significantly more, but definitely no less than $4 million per, and I would think higher is warranted. Plus, John Marino’s contract pays $4.4 million on average per year, so in terms of comparison, they are very similar players and probably will be paid similarly, whether both are in NJ or not.

What I Would Do and What I Think NJ Will Do

If I were the GM for the Devils, first off the team would be in trouble. However, I would have to look at the picture as a whole. According to Cap Friendly, the Devils have a projected $34 million in available cap space. That is plenty to sign some guys. However, a lot of guys need signing as well. 12 guys on the active roster on Cap Friendly are either restricted or unrestricted free agents. On the defense, that comes down to Graves, Damon Severson, and Kevin Bahl. On offense, Timo Meier will need a deal, and expect him to get a big one and carry a big cap hit. Same with Jesper Bratt or whoever the Devils decide to bring in to replace Bratt. Either way, that’s two guys with big cap hits not yet on the books. The other names carry smaller value, but either way, perhaps close to half of that $34 million in cap space will disappear between Meier and Bratt/Bratt’s replacement. This matters.

On defense, if none of those three guys are brought back, the Devils would be left with Dougie Hamilton, John Marino, Jonas Siegenthaler, Brendan Smith, and Luke Hughes. That is 4 quality defensemen and Smith, who really is a 7th defenseman. So in reality, Fitzgerald needs to sign at least one of Graves/Severson/Bahl, more likely two of the three unless he plans to go to the free agent market. However, I think it unlikely that all three are brought back, as the ascension of Luke Hughes and the positive growth of Simon Nemec this year make an extra body less important. Yes, you can never have too many bodies, as injuries will mean that everyone plays at some point, but you don’t need to give both Severson and Graves $4-$5 million dollar deals when you have other, younger, cheaper guys who can fill in and perform similarly. This is especially true if you think Kevin Bahl will improve and perform similarly to Graves sooner than later. Bahl is coming off his ELC and will make under $2 million per year on his next deal, and that would save a ton of cap room to sign forwards.

I think if cap space were not an issue, Fitzgerald would bring all three back. But with the inevitable squeeze that will be coming after signing Meier and Bratt and having a ton of other guys that need deals, I am not sure if $8-$10 million in cap space can be allocated to Graves and Severson. Maybe Fitzgerald makes that happen, but more likely I see only one being brought back along with Bahl. So my question is, do you want Severson or Graves? Tough call there. Severson can be an analytics darling at times but also draws the ire of many fans at times for his lack of production and string of bad plays that he is liable to make at times. Graves I think is seen as more steady and solid, but you are not getting the same offense with him. Plus, he did not have a good playoffs this year, and the recency bias does not help.

In the end, between the two, I think it comes down to preference. Severson provides point play on the power play and gives more offense, while Graves eats up PK minutes and is a steadier force on defense overall. What do the Devils want? More offense, or steadier defense? That will determine who gets the 4-5 year deal at $4-$5 million AAV, and who ends up signing elsewhere. Me? I would offer it to Graves. Luke Hughes is coming, and he is the offensive talent on the blue line to go along with Hamilton. The team will need steadier defensive play outside of those two guys, especially as they hope to make Akira Schmid the next #1 on this team. I think you need to support Schmid more than provide a little extra offensive boost, and that makes Graves more desirable than Severson. Therefore, I would look to offer Graves a 5 year deal at around $4.5 AAV. I think by the end of that deal, you would be happy with what you got from him, and I think the chance of the contract becoming an albatross is incredibly low.

Your Thoughts

Those are my thoughts. What do you think? Would you look to re-sign Ryan Graves as well, or would you prefer Damon Severson? Or, do you think Fitzgerald makes it a priority to bring both back at the expense of better forwards? What do you think of Graves as a player, and do you see room for growth in his game? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading!