On Ryan Graves, the "other" defensive addition

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Today’s post was written by C.J. TURTORO. You can find C.J. on Twitter @CJTDevil.

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There were 215 different pairs of defenders to log 100 minutes of ice time together last season. Of those 215, Ryan Graves is a member of the 2nd, 11th, 20th, and 29th highest pairings in terms of shot share (according to Natural Stat Trick).

Every single pairing that he played substantial time on was in the top 30 pairings -- the 87th percentile. That is an absurdly reliable level of production.

In fact, that level of consistency may make you wonder if there is something else locking in these shot ratios. After all, we know individual player performance is often pretty erratic especially when looking at sample sizes this small.

The first thing we might look at is the partners. And, while Colorado did have a near-historical top three defenders in Cale Makar, Devon Toews, and Sam Girard (all potentially worthy of Norris consideration), Graves also saw that level of success with Connor Timmins -- a nice prospect, but far less established defencemen.

The next place we would look is at the forwards. And Colorado had probably the deepest crop of shot-impacting forwards in the NHL. They had a productive top-6 led by the the MacKinnon line, and a possession-oriented bottom six highlighted by the hyper efficient Saad-Jost-Nichushkin line (Graves’s most common forward partners). It, therefore, stands to reason that a defender like Graves may simply be benefitting from great strength of teammates. 

Let see how his four most common defense partners fared with him as opposed to with other players.

Almost all of the players improved in almost all metrics when playing away from Graves. This is the exact opposite of the stat we saw to open this piece -- and it seems a scathing indictment of his impact. 

Not so fast.

Remember that when these guys aren’t playing with Graves, they are playing with other Avs defenders.

For instance, most of the time Makar was playing with fellow Norris vote-getter, Devon Toews. How bad can it really be to be only 1% worse in terms of expected goals than Toews?

To weigh all of this appropriately, it’s best to use an impact model that adjusts for the quality of your teammates, opponents, and usage.

Hockeyviz and Evolving-Hockey are two such models. Below are last year’s impacts for each of the six presumed Devils starting defenders next season so you can see where Ryan Graves slots.

I’m sure it will surprise no one to learn that Graves comes in behind Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson. I also think people are likely rightfully forgiving of Ty Smith for having poor impacts in a rookie season where he was thrown into the fire on a poor roster.

But I’d assume most people were not expecting he would come in at the 5th best even-strength defender in this metric -- especially since many have penciled him in as Dougie’s partner on the first pairing.

And this is where Graves’s specific skills come into play rather than his overall value. A very good player is going to have a gravitational effect on the players around them and minimize their importance.

Here’s an example: If Connor McDavid is on the ice, it doesn’t really matter who else is -- you’ll probably win that shift.

Dougie Hamilton is not Connor McDavid, but his impact on a defensive pairing is similarly strong. He is going to dominate the puck in transition and attract a ton of attention at the offensive blueline.

The most valuable player on a Dougie line is someone that will do what he doesn’t. So what would help Dougie excel? For one area, we can look at some numbers from InStat shared by Jack Fraser (JFresh) on Twitter.

Note the presence of not only Graves, but also Dougie’s former partner in Carolina -- Jaccob Slavin.

Hamilton, despite being 6’6’’, is a bit of a finesse defender in that his game centers around skating, passing, shooting, and vision.

I’ve examined why Dougie is going to put up good numbers regardless of the partner he has, but it’s always a good idea to have pairings that excel in a variety of ways so that they can be used in any scenario. 

That’s what Graves does. He gets into the dirty areas of the ice so that he can protect the home plate area and let guys like Dougie roam. Put simply, Graves’s sandpaper allows us to use someone like Dougie as much as possible -- and that’s desirable because Dougie is extremely good.

Now, this comes with a caveat. Ryan Graves is not a plug-and-chug automatic top-4 defender regardless of team. He comes with severe limitations, particularly with regards to puck movement.

He seems like he might be a natural complement to some of the guys on this team, but it’s not immediately obvious that something like, say, a Smith-Graves pairing would be anything other than a trainwreck. Were Hamilton to be injured at some point, Graves in the top-4 becomes substantially less appetizing. 

Overall, Graves is a fringe top-4 defencemen in terms of expected goal impact. However, he does seem to fit in well to our top pairing because it pairs him with Dougie and allows us to move other defenders (Severson-Smith, for instance) down the lineup.

In the past, he has succeeded with partners like Dougie (ex: Makar), and Dougie has succeeded with partners like him (Slavin). We’d be wise not to expect much from him individually, but finding an extra defender competent enough to plug into a first pairing for 2 years $3.2M is a purchase absolutely worth making