By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers prospect Ryan Graves watched intently as close friend Brady Skjei took the fast track to the NHL last season. Not every player is able to make that leap as rapidly and smoothly as Skjei did. That said, Graves has enjoyed an accelerated rise to AHL stardom and is highly regarded within the Rangers organization.

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His time could come soon. On Tuesday, Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark stated that he thinks Graves could push for an NHL roster spot out of training camp. Graves will be a player to watch during the preseason and is hoping to follow in Skjei’s footsteps.

“You hope someday if you keep doing the right things, keep working hard, that maybe it could be me,” Graves told WFAN.com. “Brady is an elite player. He was a high draft pick. He made the jump look pretty easy with his skating ability. Brady and I are very different players. We’re good friends. We stay in close contact. I’ve asked him how it was when he was up here. I’ve gotten pointers from him, seeing how the jump was for him. That helps, for sure.”

The small-town boy from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, speaks softly – but his game is predicated on power. Graves plays a big man’s game, effectively using his 6-foot-4, 226-pound frame.

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“I’m not a flashy player,” Graves said. “I’m a physical, stay-at-home defenseman. I stick to my game. I won’t be the guy trying to rush the puck or putting up a lot of goals. Maybe the points will come in games when I get chances. If they don’t, they don’t. It’s not something I think about a lot.

“For me, it’s always the same thing year in and year out,” he continued. “I’m trying to get stronger and get more powerful. I’m a big guy. Most big guys need a little while to grow into their bodies and usually have to work on their footwork a lot. Making the jump last year to an older league, it’s a big difference with the size and strength of guys. In junior, I could push guys around a little bit. Whereas when you make it to the AHL, everyone is as strong as you are. So you have to try to get that edge, continue to work hard and get stronger.”

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Graves enjoyed a 21-point campaign (nine goals, 12 assists in 74 games) in his 2015-16 AHL rookie season. He impressed to the point that he was named an AHL All-Star and wowed onlookers at the AHL Skills Competition by blistering a 103.4-mph drive to win the hardest shot event.

“I didn’t go into the season expecting that at all,” Graves said. “I still feel fortunate and a little bit surprised that I was selected. We had some really good guys – guys like Brady and (Jayson) Megna — put up a lot of points. It’s definitely an experience I will never forget. The three-on-three format and skills competition was fun. It was an exciting weekend.”

While Graves credits head coach Ken Gernander, assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom and the rest of the Hartford coaching staff for keeping him on task, he understands that it’s every bit his responsibility to keep his feet on the ground.

“They keep me grounded, for sure,” Graves said. “They tell you when you’re making mistakes and don’t let you get carried away. I try to do that myself as well. I’m good at not letting things go to my head. Every player has put their time in. Ryan McDonagh and Chris Kreider played in Hartford. All those guys have been down there and developed. It’s a developmental league for a reason. You want to do the right things there, work hard on your game and make sure you’re improving. That’s what I’ll try to do.”

Working closely with Beukeboom, Graves said he appreciates the opportunity to soak up pointers from a celebrated four-time Stanley Cup champion. Beukeboom was a rugged blueline presence during the Edmonton Oilers’ heyday and will forever be remembered as a vital member of the Rangers’ 1994 roster that ended a 54-year championship drought.

“He worked with me and the rest of the defensemen all year long,” Graves said. “He’s been on a lot of good teams. He knows what it takes and has won the Cup. He has a wealth of knowledge that any player can use. You try to listen to him, take his pointers when he has them and just try to take everything in. If I made a mistake in a game or I had a play where he said I could do better, he would pull me in and show me the clip. He’s always positive when he shows me a good clip or a bad clip. Whatever the case is, it’s a matter of improving.”

Expectations are high, but Graves isn’t getting ahead of himself. Whether he cracks the Rangers’ roster out of training camp or not, his ability to make good use of his large frame, powerful shot and attention to detail could result in a long-lasing NHL career.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey