As April approaches and the final three weekends of the 2015-16 regular season play out, the Hartford Wolf Pack find themselves just two points out of the final playoff spot in the AHL’s Eastern Conference. Despite going 22-12-1-0 since the beginning of the 2016 calendar year, however, the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate still find themselves one win away from being in a playoff position.
The one thing Hartford has going for them is that the style of hockey they play – a stalwart, defense-first approach – is conducive to winning playoff hockey, a fact that suits rookie defenseman Ryan Graves just fine.
“We have a very strong defense core and we have a lot of good defensive forwards,” Graves said of his team in Hartford. “We don’t exactly have the run-and-gun style, so we play to our strengths – good defensive hockey, good goaltending and that’s how we are going to win games. We get in trouble if we start trying to run-and-gun with teams.”
While he put up points in his final season of junior hockey in the QMJHL, and has 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) in 66 AHL games this season, the rookie defender is a stay-at-home-type of defenseman who is working on being defensively sound and consistent in his own end.
“It’s better to play a simple game, chip it, get it deep and work them down low,” Graves added on where his team’s optimal success comes from. “Shots on net with traffic – even on the power play – is the kind of game we need to play.”
Graves hasn’t had much trouble adjusting to the physical play in the pro game, which is not all that surprising. Listed at 6-4 and 220 pounds, he is more than comfortable going into the corners and battling along the boards at the pro level. The concern coming in as a bigger, more solidly-built player was his adjustment to the speed of the pro game, but even that adjustment – according to Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander – has been smooth.
“He’s a bigger guy and adjusting to the speed, but that being said, he’s not slow-footed, he’s got good feet, good agility,” Gernander said of Graves. “There’s a bit of an adjustment to the speed, but I think he’s made that [transition] well.”
The Rangers’ fourth round pick from the 2013 NHL Draft is one of two Wolf Pack defenders seeing significant playing time during their rookie season, but Graves understands that there will be ups and downs throughout the course of the season.
“When you’re having an off-night you don’t want to stick out,” said Graves. “You want to be able to dumb it down and make the game simple – making a good first pass, being solid defensively and not trying to go through guys. That’s a learning curve. That’s something you learn as the season goes on.”
As his first season of pro hockey winds down, Graves knows the intensity and importance of every shift is ramped up. He is beginning to get used to the daily grind of a 76-game pro hockey schedule in the AHL, and he is hoping he can gain the experience that a postseason run this spring would provide.
“I’m fairly used to the pace and size of guys, it’s more of a learning experience, of a push toward the playoffs – to see what the style of play is and just trying to learn,” Graves explained. “I’ve been happy with my consistency for the most part.”
It is safe to say the coaching staff in Hartford is pleased with the progress Graves is making in his rookie season, which is a good sign for an organization that isn’t particularly deep at the defense position.
“I think coming in he had a pretty good tool set,” Gernander said of Graves’ skills entering the season. “He’s always had a real good stick as far as defending. I think he gets more and more comfortable with each passing day and he’s starting to get some offense, as well. A lot of positive signs of growth and development, and that’s what we are looking for.”
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