Ryan Reaves may play for the first time in over a month when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit his hometown of Winnipeg on Saturday night.
Calle Järnkrok took a shot off his left hand at practice on Friday afternoon and slammed his glove down as he made his way to the dressing room. He looked like a player who knew he’d done some damage. It’s unlikely he’s available to face the Jets. The Leafs needed to create a roster spot, meanwhile, to accommodate Tyler Bertuzzi’s return to the team (following Reaves’ activation from injured reserve) and did so by putting Bobby McMann on injured reserve.
So, Reaves will potentially be in the lineup for the first time since Dec. 14. (The Leafs could also dress 11 forwards and seven defencemen and hold Reaves out, or even call another forward up if Järnkrok’s injury is serious, which looked to be the case).
Whether he plays or not, the Leafs appear to be approaching a crossroads with Reaves — with nearly two and a half years still left on his contract. Reaves has been healthy for weeks and itching to play. The Leafs haven’t appeared intent on playing him.
Where do they go from here? I see four possible paths:
1. Play him
Sheldon Keefe scratched Reaves six times before Reaves injured his knee in Columbus in the middle of December.
Reaves had one goal and 10 shots in 20 games to that point. Minutes for him in the five games he played before getting hurt: 7:59, 8:58, 7:08, 5:57, 7:15.
Fourth lines with him on it were roundly outplayed. Outscored. Outpossessed. Outshot. Fourth lines without him, on the other hand, have been more usable for Keefe. The Leafs are basically even in shots, shot attempts, and goals when Bobby McMann, David Kämpf, and Noah Gregor are out there together. The line can skate. The line can be buried (sort of) in their own zone. The line, even if it can’t score, is moderately functional. Playing in the Reaves spot, McMann has produced seven points and 33 shots in 23 games.
McMann will return from whatever injury he’s been playing through after the All-Star break, which will bump Reaves back down the depth chart and out of the lineup, potentially.
Does Keefe want to bump McMann, or even Gregor, out for Reaves? Does that help a Leafs team that’s unexpectedly fighting for a playoff spot? Clearly not. The Leafs have only one back-to-back in February, so there’s not even space to play that card. (The second night of that back-to-back comes against Vegas.) Could Keefe mix him in the odd night? Sure. Would that be for the betterment of the team? No. The Leafs coach did just that, however, with similar players like Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford once upon a time.
Those Leaf teams were much stronger than this one though. In other words, Keefe could get away with playing Simmonds seven or eight minutes the odd night. Reaves’ play was so problematic before he was hurt (in a lineup with depth issues already) that playing him regularly, even for short spells, was costly.
This path of playing him regularly doesn’t feel viable at this point.
2. Sit him
This path is thornier as it would have Reaves sitting and sitting and sitting some more.
He won’t be happy with that obviously. Keeping him around in that case might not be great in the vibes department. It doesn’t serve anyone — Reaves or the team. The Leafs kept aging vets like Simmonds, Clifford, and even, at the very end, Jason Spezza, around in a similar capacity. But those guys, Spezza mostly, could still contribute a little when called upon. They were viable break-in-case-of-emergency options. Reaves isn’t that. So, maybe he simply sits for a while.
If the Järnkrok injury keeps him out for a while, which seems likely, the Leafs won’t need to make a roster move to accommodate McMann’s eventual return. Which means they could just sit Reaves alongside the likes of William Lagesson and Conor Timmins.
They might go this route, but it feels like merely kicking the can down the road.
3. Trade him
The New York Rangers went through a similar situation with Reaves at the outset of last season. They stopped playing him entirely after 12 games. Reaves was on an expiring contract and the Rangers managed to move him to Minnesota for a fifth-round pick.
Reaves turned 37 last week. He has two more years left on his contract after this one — his age 38 and 39-year-old seasons. His $1.35 million cap hit is almost double the NHL minimum. Is there a team out there that still values him in light of all that? It’s very hard to see it, but it can’t be ruled out entirely. If Treliving finds any interest in Reaves he should pounce — a la Kyle Dubas with Nick Ritchie — and try to right this foreseeable error as best he can. The Leafs could even retain $200K (the amount that would, potentially, remain on the books in path No. 4).
To deal Ritchie, who had another year left on his contract, the Leafs had to attach what eventually became a second-round pick. (They also got back a helpful addition in Ilya Lyubushkin).
If moving Reaves requires attaching an asset? No go obviously.
4. Waive him
The easiest thing the Leafs can do here is place Reaves on waivers.
If there is a team out there that wants him, they can take him for free. If they do, the Leafs gain $1.35 million in cap space. If they don’t, Reaves can be assigned to the Marlies, in which case all but $200K will linger on the cap. Not only this year, of course, but two years after that potentially. Not great! But still better than a buyout, which would see the Leafs carrying around a cap hit of $450K for the next four (!) seasons.
Will Reaves, a proud player who’s played almost 960 games in the NHL, even accept an assignment to the Marlies, especially if he’s going to be there for the rest of this season conceivably and two more after it? Will he have a choice?
Clifford went down and played for the Marlies. Simmonds, who had never played in the AHL at any point, did not.
The Leafs also have to decide if they want a potentially unhappy Reaves around the Marlies. Do they want him to take up a lineup spot in place of a younger player — again for this season and two more after that?
That hardly seems ideal, but in light of the other options, what can they do?
(Top photo: Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)