When people talk about the Avalanche’s young defense core, they often mention the likes of Cale Makar and Sam Girard. That list usually also includes Bowen Byram and Connor Timmins, perhaps even Nikita Zadorov.

But one player that has quietly worked himself into the conversation as a core piece is Ryan Graves.

Graves, 24, was acquired by the Avalanche from the New York Rangers in a minor league swap for former Avs draft pick Chris Bigras. That deal, which happened at the trade deadline in 2018, has proven to be one-sided.

While Bigras has remained in the AHL, Graves has worked himself into a permanent role with the Avs. And against the Blackhawks on Wednesday, he logged a career-high 22:32 in Colorado’s 4-1 victory in Chicago.

The Avalanche are still without the injured Erik Johnson and Cale Makar and Graves has stepped up massively in their absence.

“Obviously when you add guys like Makar and EJ, the other guys’ minutes are going to shrink a little bit,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “But Ryan has developed a level of trust with the coaches and the coaching staff.”

Graves appeared in 26 games for Colorado last season, often in a depth role to fill in for injuries. He showed enough in his brief time to earn a one year “show me” contract from GM Joe Sakic.

He has appeared in all but one game this season, scoring five goals and recording 13 points in 33 games. But perhaps more fascinating is his plus-22 rating, which leads the NHL.

“I’ve always said I’m not a huge fan of the stat because I think it’s more of a team stat,” he told me. “I’m plus-whatever and I don’t have that many points so obviously it’s not me putting the puck in the net every time. It’s right place right time.”

“But at the same time, I work to be reliable defensively and make sure pucks are staying out of my net. So I think minuses are something I definitely focus on, making sure I’m not on the ice for goals against. But again it’s kind of a team stat.”

Graves has been on the ice for 38 goals at even strength, and just 18 against, a 67.9 goals-for percentage. The only defenseman on the Avs with a better number is his current partner, Ian Cole, who leads the Avs’ regulars at 72.1 percent.

Cole has played with Graves for a majority of the past 11 games. In that stretch, Graves has scored three goals and recorded six points.

“He’s a very athletic guy. He can skate, he’s strong, a smart player,” Cole said. “He’s putting pucks on net and he’s putting himself in a good position where he can get pucks to the net quicker. Goalies have a lot of holes when you get pucks on them quick off passes or off rebounds or whatever. He’s done a great job at that. He’s a great player and will be for a long time.”