The Penguins Have an NHL Problem, Not a Ryan Reaves Problem

Ryan Reaves

Photo Credit: Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

The Penguins, on Friday, traded one seldom-used prospect and one spot in a draft that, compared to last year’s, looked ordinary, for one notorious knuckle-dragger with pedestrian NHL skill. If you hopped on social media at the time without knowing the details of the trade, you’d think Jim Rutherford sold Crosby to Philadelphia for the entire ’75 Flyers, or that we had fallen into a wormhole back to 2001, when Craig Patrick was peddling franchise players for Kris Beech and some used puck bags.

Rutherford, in reality, had one thing in mind: stick up for Sid.

Well, okay, maybe two things. That, and taking the chance to look Gary Bettman and his cronies, along with select Eastern Conference brass, in their collective eye and tell them, “Fuck you.”

Adam Gretz, a great syndicated hockey writer who has written in-depth pieces arguing the effectiveness of a player like Ryan Reaves is myth, called it “insane” when we chatted about it on Twitter. Insanity, as Albert Einstein famously said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

“Just play” is a sound philosophy. It helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Hell, it even looked cool on a t-shirt. Sometimes “just play” just isn’t enough of a deterrent.

These aren’t hockey-playing or hockey-watching robots. These aren’t gods (debatable in Crosby’s case, perhaps). These are humans with jobs who get bothered by the same things at their workplace that would bother you or I at ours.

Imagine being critically injured at your job by a careless coworker who was wholly at fault, and being told there would be no reparations because, miraculously, you didn’t miss any work. Or because the incident was inconsistent with the coworker’s reputation. Or because your body changed the “wrong” direction when you were injured. Or because your company deemed the coworker’s intentions innocent, even though it likes to tell its employees you can’t prove intent. This is the crap the Penguins have had to put up with, and Rutherford got Reaves because the Penguins had had enough.

It’s okay to admit GMJR overpaid for Reaves. He did. It’s okay to dislike Reaves. I wasn’t a fan by any stretch of the imagination when this went down. It’s okay to think this was a rare lapse in judgment on the part of a historically successful and ironically progressive-minded team builder. But is it any more nonsensical than the game the Pens have been more or less forced to play when it comes to protecting their greatest asset?

During a regular season visit by the Columbus Blue Jackets and after another unpunished cheap shot by Brandon Dubinsky on a defenseless Crosby, Rob Shick, an erstwhile passenger in the NHL’s clown car who, today, serves as a supervisor of officials, suggested to Paul Steigerwald off-air that the Pens should get someone like Reaves to better take care of their captain. The scary part is, Shick, who refereed in the league for 24 years, wasn’t kidding.

That should tell you all you need to know about the culture the NHL has blindly refused to change. It should tell you all you need to know about the NHL, period.

This is not a drill. The zombies have taken over the mall, the inmates are running the asylum, the dinosaurs are out of containment. Mario tried to warn us a generation ago, Rutherford put the Garage League™ on notice during the playoffs. Both were ignored, and before you chalk this up to the idle whining of a spoiled franchise and fan base, remember that Bobby Orr, one of the old guard’s greatest living legends, also complained on Sid’s behalf, as first reported by Josh Yohe.

I didn’t think, after this spring, I would yearn for the blasé postseason officiating of 2016, but here we are. The Penguins prevailed because, again, they refused to go tit-for-tat with various opponents who, at various times, went the extra mile to try their patience, starting with the Jackets in round one.

Dismissing Columbus in five, however, didn’t stop Alex Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen from targeting Crosby in round two. Giving the Caps their comeuppance didn’t stop Kyle Turris from tackling him without the puck in the conference final. Outlasting Ottawa didn’t stop P.K. Subban from–well, you remember. So Rutherford, whose team lost roughly 300 man-games to injury this season–and believed in next-man-up Oskar Sundqvist so much it dressed him for ten, none in the playoffs–lost patience.

The Pens reached their destination by taking the high road, but the Ferrari still got its doors keyed, tires deflated and windshield smashed. Their response, after it became clear through the words and (in-)actions of the NHL that it doesn’t care about the hijacking of its own product, was to get a player who isn’t afraid to take it out in the alley.

Don’t hate the player (or executive), as the kids say–hate the game.

If you still hate Reaves, you might want to hear out the Blues fans who expressed their own dissatisfaction with the trade. Some say it’s a bigger loss than letting ex-Penguin David Perron get snatched up by Vegas in the Expansion Draft. That might not mean much coming from fans of a team allergic to success, but there is evidence to suggest Reaves improved his conditioning and better channeled his toughness this season.

Forget Rutherford’s remarks for a second, and while you’re at it, suspend your statistical disbelief temporarily. I’ve said before and I’ll say again that you are who your coach is. Mike Sullivan is something of an alpha-male himself, but he’s also as no-nonsense as they come. History says he can be trusted to shorten the leash on Reaves if he lacks discipline.

Furthermore, this gives the Pens a chance to reevaluate their bottom six forwards, especially with Nick Bonino about to dip his toe in free agent waters. They love Carter Rowney and, after this year’s playoffs, have no reason not to, otherwise Sundqvist would still be here. But the rest of those guys just didn’t seem to do as much heavy lifting offensively as they did a year ago, largely because the accidental magic of “HBK” disappeared.

This isn’t Rutherford’s problem. The NHL couldn’t be less interested in vigilance, leaving teams like this one with little choice but to pursue vigilante justice in order to give its stars peace of mind. Reaves’ presence might not prevent all the thuggery Crosby will endure, but the message it sends is still profound. Have all the analytics you want. People are people no matter what the numbers say, and people get tired of paying a physical price to hit what was previously believed to be an easy target.

Friday’s trade was not a sledgehammer to the Pens’ identity. It was a singular, low-risk, adapt-or-die move made by a frustrated GM. “Just play” is all well and good. Is it so wrong, after all they’ve been through, for the Pens to want to “just play” with a little bit more physical leverage?

And if it does end up being a mistake, then feel free to blow me a kiss at the Klim Kostin statue dedication.

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