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Projecting Penguins’ Defenceman Bounce-Back Season

Ryan Graves‘ first season with the Penguins was underwhelming. However, past comparable situations leave room for Ryan Graves’ bounce-back. Graves’ first season with the Pittsburgh Penguins had ups and downs. Graves is usually known for his solid play in his own end and occasional offensive contributions. However, Graves faced challenges adapting to a new team and system during his first season with the Penguins.

Ryan Graves 2023-2024 Season Overview

Graves joined the Penguins with high expectations, especially given his impressive performances with the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils. Graves scored 26 points and a plus-minus of +34 in the 2022-2023 NHL season with the Devils. Following this, Graves signed a 6-year contract at an average annual value of $4.5 million dollars against the cap. During the 2023-2024 season, Graves had 14 points with 3 goals and a plus 10 in 70 games played. This was considered a disappointment as Graves put up 28 and 26 points in the prevailing two seasons with the Devils. Additionally, Graves’ Corsi rating was a disappointing 48.8%. The Penguins missed the playoffs by just a few points. A Ryan Graves bounce-back season could be a large improvement to the Penguins roster this season.

Ryan Graves’ Bounce-Back: Drawing on the Past to Look to the Future

To justify optimism for Ryan Graves’ bounce-back season, we can look at comparable defencemen who also faced initial struggles in their first year with new teams but rebounded strongly in subsequent seasons.

T.J. Brodie (Toronto Maple Leafs)

First Season: TJ Brodie’s first season with the Leafs in 2020-2021 saw him register 14 points (1 goal, 13 assists) in 56 games. He faced challenges in adapting to the Leaf’s defensive schemes and integrating his play style with new teammates. Brodie averaged 0.29 points per game the season prior with the Calgary Flames. Additionally, he had over 0.38 points per game for the 7 seasons before that. In his first season with the Leafs, Brodie’s 0.25 points per game and limited availability at 56 games was seen as disappointing. However, Brodie showed glimpses of being the steady and capable two-way defenceman he had been in Calgary prior.

Bounce-back Season: In his second season, Brodie’s defensive play improved significantly. He contributed 28 points (4 goals, 24 assists) in 82 games. A large reason for his improvement came from his increased familiarity with the Leaf’s system. This was coupled with more effective communication with his defensive partners. For Graves, gaining a deeper understanding of the Penguins’ system and improving his communication with teammates can be pivotal in elevating his game.

Brady Skjei (Carolina Hurricanes)

First Season: In Brady Skjei‘s first full season with the Hurricanes in 2020-2021 he scored 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) in 52 games with a plus-minus of 6. While he provided solid defensive coverage, his offensive contributions were limited. His 0.19 points per game was seen as disappointing. Skjei had put up a .38 points per game with the New York Rangers in 2019-2020 prior to joining the Hurricanes, and this kind of production was expected of him when joining the Hurricanes. Skjei had been on a 5-year contract with an average annual value of $5.25 million dollars against the cap at the time of his arrival in Carolina, similar to Graves.

Bounce-back Season: In his second season, Skjei increased his point total to 25 (8 goals, 17 assists) in 80 games. This improvement stemmed from a better understanding of his role within the team’s strategy and developing more confidence in his offensive abilities. Skjei also benefited from more consistent pairings and time in the Hurricanes system. This allowed for him to take more calculated risks and join the offensive rush more effectively. For Graves, identifying his role within the Penguins’ strategy could lead to similar offensive and defensive improvements.

Ryan McDonagh (Nashville Predators)

First Season: Ryan McDonagh‘s first season with the Nashville Predators in 2022-2023 saw him record 20 points (2 goals, 18 assists) in 71 games. McDonagh provided steady defensive play. Although he initially struggled to adapt to the Predators’ system and build chemistry with his new teammates.

Bounce-back Season: In his second season, McDonagh’s performance improved significantly, contributing 32 points (3 goals, 29 assists) in 74 games. The key factors in his rebound were his enhanced understanding of the Predators’ system and the development of strong on-ice relationships with his defensive partners. McDonagh’s increased  familiarity with the team’s strategies allowed him to make more impactful plays on both ends of the ice. This increase in quality of play was one of the reasons the Predators team were able to make a late season play-off push. For Graves, similar growth in system understanding and team dynamics is beneficial. It could lead to a more productive and reliable season with the Penguins.

Reasons for Optimism

Several factors suggest that Ryan Graves bounce-back will occur in his second season with the Penguins due to the following reasons.

System Familiarity

Graves will have had a full season and two-offseasons with the Penguins. As such, Graves is likely to be more comfortable and effective in his role. Understanding the team’s defensive schemes and offensive strategies will allow him to make more impactful plays.

Improved Chemistry

Developing better on-ice chemistry with his defensive partners will contribute to a cohesive defensive unit. Effective communication and understanding between partners can lead to better defensive coverage and more opportunities to join the offensive play. Graves has the luxury of spending much of his time in the top four alongside. In this spot, he is likely to play with either one of Kris Letang or Erik Karlsson. Both D-men are offensive weapons, and Graves should have some carryover skill and experience when switching between playing with either of them.

Historical Trends

As seen with Brodie, Skjei, and McDonagh, defencemen often improve significantly in their second seasons with new teams after adjusting to new environments and systems. Ryan Graves bounce-back can draw from these examples and focus on building confidence and making decisive plays.


Ryan Graves’ first season with the Pittsburgh Penguins had its challenges. However, historical comparisons with similar defensemen suggest a promising outlook for a bounce-back year. With improved system familiarity, better chemistry with teammates, and a more time in the system, Graves is well-positioned to elevate his game and make a substantial impact on the Penguins’ blue line in the upcoming season. Penguins fans have every reason to be optimistic about Graves’ potential resurgence. A healthy and comfortable Ryan Graves is an effective player. Alongside Letang, Karlsson and Marcus Pettersson, this defense would be a formidable group capable of pushing the team towards its goal of qualifying for the playoffs.

Main Photo: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports


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