Sam Reinhart has much to prove as an NHL player, but give the kid credit for this much: He already has mastered the art of politely answering questions without providing any real insight. Then again, what was the rookie center to say Thursday about his uncertain future?
Reinhart is 18 years old. He lacks the maturity and experience – not to mention confidence and credibility – to add his two cents into a complex situation. He’s like many young adults who aren’t sure of themselves. They mind their manners and follow marching orders until told otherwise.
Of course he would rather play in the NHL. Of course he would rather continue living a lifelong dream and enjoy the riches of hockey at the highest level. But he had no expectations and certainly didn’t have the audacity to predict whether he would remain in Buffalo for the rest of the season.
“It’s out of my control,” Reinhart said after the Sabres’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Bruins. “My focus was on tonight. Now, it’s shifting toward practice tomorrow and Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon. It’s going to be the same way until something is said to me. I try not to think about it.”
The game Thursday marked Reinhart’s ninth in the NHL and his final audition before the organization determines whether he remains in Buffalo or returns to junior for more seasoning. General Manager Tim Murray said afterward he made up his mind but wasn’t planning to share his decision until today.
Murray might want to consider sending half of his roster to Moose Jaw considering how the Sabres have played this season. They were outshot again Thursday, this time 37-15, and yet it passed for a better performance by their standards. Drew Stafford scored on the power play, marking two firsts with one goal.
Reinhart played seven minutes, 45 seconds on the fourth line and did little to help his cause. It left Murray in a predicament.
Projecting player development is an inexact science, and it’s considerably tougher when evaluating teenagers. Some adjust right away, some need a season or more and some never do. Often, it’s not a matter of what a player has done but figuring out what he’s capable of doing and when.
If it were based solely on performance this season, Reinhart would be given a one-way ticket to Kootenay. He has no goals and one assist with three shots on goal in nine games. His skating needs work. At times, he has looked out of place and overwhelmed against the big boys.
Simply, he’s not fully ready for NHL duty.
Ted Nolan sounded like he would prefer Reinhart returned to the WHL for a fourth season. The argument has merit, but to me it makes more sense for him to stay. It’s not because the Sabres need him for a magical march to 28th place. It’s because keeping him wouldn’t hurt them and might help him.
We haven’t even flipped the calendar to November, and it already looks like another lost season in Buffalo. Why not get a head start on grooming their top prospect over the final 72 games?
Reinhart has little to gain by going back. He has proved he can dominate players in his age group. He would be better off practicing with and playing against NHL players. The experience should accelerate his development for next season, when another high draft pick shows up.
“You’re not going to get that anywhere else,” Reinhart said. “It’s definitely a learning experience. I’m learning how to compete every day with these guys in practice, and they’re all here helping me. It makes it enjoyable and fun coming to the rink every day.”
Boston faced a similar situation four years ago with Tyler Seguin, selected second overall in 2010. The Bruins developed him on the fly. Seguin was between the third and fourth lines. He played 12 minutes or fewer 29 times. He was a healthy scratch eight times. He had 11 goals and 22 points.
The following year, after adjusting to the speed of the NHL and learning the system, he had 29 goals and 67 points and was plus-34. He was traded to Dallas, where he had 37 goals and 84 points last season.
He has nine goals and 15 points in nine games this year. Seguin is one of the best young players in the NHL.
Boston could afford to keep him on the bench as a rookie and bring him along at the proper pace. He was surrounded by veterans on a team that ended up winning the Stanley Cup. He didn’t make a difference, so there was no pressure to succeed. The same is true for Buffalo, but for opposite reasons.
If the Sabres are committed to rebuilding, then Reinhart should be an immediate component in their long-term plan. If he adjusted to the NHL and made considerable improvement before next season, this year wouldn’t be viewed as a total loss no matter what happened in the standings.
Reinhart would be under their supervision in practice. They could oversee his training and diet. They could keep him on the fourth line or throw him in the press box until he earned a promotion. Buffalo would have little to lose … other than hockey games. Around here, it passes for a win-win. He can’t say as much, but it’s true.