The 2014-2015 season was a successful one for what is quickly emerging as a golden 2013 draft class for the New York Rangers. Anthony Duclair and Mackenzie Skapski made their NHL debuts. Pavel Buchnevich became a star in the KHL. Adam Tambellini put up gaudy numbers in the WHL and earned an NHL contract.
Fourth-round pick Ryan Graves also had a productive campaign and took a major step forward in his development. In the offseason, the incumbent QMJHL President's Cup winning Val-d'Or Foreurs traded Graves to the Quebec Remparts, who were set to host the CHL's Memorial Cup. Graves grew up in a Novia Scotia town with under 7,000 people, and previously only played for Val-d'Or and the Charlottetown Islanders; two small-market teams in the QMJHL
"I definitely do enjoy a small town," Graves said.
Quebec is as big of a market as there is in the CHL, generating crowds that are within range of some NHL teams. But it was a good experience for a player who hopes to one day live and play in New York City.
"It was a lot of fun playing in Quebec," Graves said. "Quebec is a big city but it doesn't have a big city feel."
Graves actually started the season on the shelf. Shoulder surgery in the summer sidelined him for all of Rangers' training camp and the start of the Remparts' season, which he called "frustrating." Graves returned from injury and made his Remparts' debut in early November, scoring a goal. He took off from there, producing a 14 points in his first 17 games. It was a stunning display from the shutdown defenseman, and Graves admitted he caught himself by surprise to an extent.
"It wasn't something I planned or really cared about, to be honest with you," Graves claimed.
However, Graves did acknowledge working with Quebec Head Coach Philippe Boucher, a former offensive defensemen in the NHL, on aspects of his game. In Val-d'Or, the team had two elite offensive defensemen in Randy Gazzola and Guillaume Gelinas, and Graves was strictly tasked with a shutdown role. Quebec, however, depended on him for some offensive production.
"(Boucher) taught me that you don't really need to be leading the rush or always jumping up to score. Just using your shot when you can, shooting from all over the ice, having an accurate shot, and (knowing) where to shoot."
Shooting is certainly Graves' strength in offensive zone. During Quebec's skills competition, his slapshot was measured at 102 miles-per-hour, which is tremendous by NHL standards and unfair at the junior level. His utilization of it this season resulted in 15 goals in 50 regular season games after totaling just 10 in his previous four QMJHL seasons combined.
"(Boucher) worked with me a lot this year on my shot," Graves said. "Last year I didn't really use it that much but he encouraged me to use it a lot this year, and he helped me grow."
Still, despite the surge in offensive production, Graves has no delusions about the player he needs to be in order to progress to pro level and, hopefully at some point, the NHL.
"I jumped in the rush more than I ever would, but I'm fully aware that when it comes to the next level those aren't really chances I'll be able to take," Graves cautioned. "Occasionally if there's an opportunity I will go, but it's not something I'm really looking for."
Indeed, while the offense is nice, the behemoth 6'5, 215-pound Graves will be evaluated primarily on his ability as a shutdown defenseman. He's a player who uses good lateral mobility and a long reach to break up attempts to enter the offensive zone by opposing forwards, and he uses his massive size and physical tendencies to patrol the crease and win puck battles along the boards. Still, in the modern NHL, that ability in itself is rarely enough. He'll never be a player carrying the puck up the ice and constantly setting up plays in the offensive zone, but being able to join the rush at the right times and add some offense can go a long way.
"In the NHL nowadays it's not so much that you're a defensive defenseman that only adds that one thing to his team that's kind of successful. Every player has somewhat of a two-way game," Graves said, before citing a familiar defenseman as an example. "With the Rangers you have (Ryan) McDonagh playing against top guys every night... he's very good defensively but he also gets a few points."
In Quebec, Graves was a teammate of fellow 2013 draft pick and former Ranger Anthony Duclair, where the two teamed up for a number of goals. On March 1st, Quebec were playing the Chicoutimi Saguéneens when Duclair was shipped to the Arizona Coyotes as part of a package for Keith Yandle.
"It actually happened during the second and third period. He got called into the coach's office and we were all wondering why," Graves said. "He came back in and he looked at me and said, 'I guess we're not going to be teammates anymore.' I thought he was joking."
Graves understands why the Rangers made the move and acknowledged that it's part of the business. Still, he does view Duclair's departure as unfortunate.
"He's a very talented player, which is pretty obvious," Graves claimed. "It would have been nice (to play with him), and it's nice knowing someone going into training camp where you don't really know anyone. We were friends this year so it's disappointing to see him go."
Of course, Graves has moved on and is focusing on what he called "a big summer" for his career. Now 20, Graves is eligible to begin his pro career. The Rangers are going to have a surplus of defensemen battling in training camp for a spot on Hartford's blue line. If he doesn't win a spot, then it is expected he would start his pro career in the ECHL with the Greenville Road Warriors. Though very unlikely, the Rangers could also theoretically send Graves back to the QMJHL for an overage season. Training camp will determine his fate, and Graves is preparing.
"I'm excited for camp but I'm also a bit nervous, too," Graves admitted. "You know don't what the future will hold. There are a lot of possibilities for where I could play next year. My goal is obviously to play pro. It's in my hands to do that. I need to have a good training camp and make sure I'm in shape."