The Buffalo Sabres had a lot to be excited about heading into the 2015-16 season. They’d just drafted Jack Eichel with the No. 2 pick, Ryan O’Reilly had been acquired from the Colorado Avalanche and Evander Kane was ready for his first healthy season in Buffalo. Robin Lehner had been pegged as the possible goalie of the future and Cody Franson was added to the blue line.
Lost in the shuffle was Sam Reinhart.
NHL fans love pedigree and promise, but a handful of other Sabres seemed to steal a majority of the spotlight from the North Vancouver native. Most organizations would be amped up for the addition of a No. 2 pick, and fans in Buffalo were. They were just excited about Eichel instead of Reinhart.
The latter was drafted second overall in 2014, but seemed like old news just a year later. Eichel was receiving all the buzz while few seemed to be expecting anything special from Reinhart as a 20-year-old rookie. The Sabres decided to ship Reinhart back to the Kootenay Ice after a nine-game tryout last year, and he proceeded to rip the WHL for 65 points in 47 games.
Eichel was coming off of a campaign that saw him notch 26 goals and 71 points in 40 games for Boston University though, and he was heralded as one of the best prospects to come along since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. He’s met even the highest expectations as a teen-aged rookie, scoring 13 goals and 27 points in 42 games played.
While Eichel shot out of the gates in October with four goals–including one in his first game–Reinhart struggled to gain traction at the start of the season. He registered just one goal and four points through the Sabres’ first 11 games, averaging just over 13 minutes per contest along the way.
He has settled in over the last few months, and has clicked as a wing despite being drafted as a center. Reinhart meshed with O’Reilly as his pivot as soon as they were lined up together. He has spent over half of his five-on-five time on a line with O’Reilly, and that duo really seems to feed off of each other when head coach Dan Bylsma rolls them out.
They are both intelligent forwards who like to hang onto the puck and make high-end plays around the net. O’Reilly is among the NHL’s leading scorers thanks in part to Reinhart’s influence from the right side.
— SiriusXM NHL Network (@SiriusXMNHL) January 11, 2016
While those two have some good chemistry, what Reinhart is developing with Eichel may be even more special. They’ve been playing on a line along with Zemgus Girgensons and have been consistently dangerous. Eichel and Girgensons helped propel Reinhart to his first career hat trick against the Winnipeg Jets this weekend.
It seemed to indicate that the forward was ready to steal back some of the spotlight back from Eichel, but he didn’t get there without some hard work over the last year.
Reinhart was selected towards the top of the 2014 draft because of his vision and hockey smarts. He was considered nearly NHL ready simply because of how smart he was, even though his 6’1″ frame wasn’t quite ready for the wear and tear of an 82-game season. He benefited from the extra year of seasoning, spending more time on weightlifting off the ice.
He spoke to Joe Yerdon of NHL.com about that new regimen ahead of this season, noting the challenges involved with getting stronger while not burning out:
“When I went back to junior, it’s challenging. I want to be 100 percent every day when I went on the ice. But to be able to get in the gym and to be where I was at the end of the year, both on and off the ice, I think was essential for me.”
Reinhart is noticeably tougher to knock off the puck now than he was a year ago, but he has also been spending a lot of time working on his shot after practices this season. Sunday’s game against Winnipeg featured an example of this. The Sabres had shoveled the puck into the offensive zone, and Johan Larsson retrieved it in the corner.
He found Reinhart at the top of the left circle, who then blew a shot through a bit of traffic, beating Connor Hellebuyck.
It’s a goal that he probably wouldn’t have scored in October or November of this year. Shooting was a noted hole in his game last season, but he’s put in the work to improve in that area.
Bylsma was still impressed a day later, telling Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News that it was a “goal scorer’s shot.”
Since scoring once through Buffalo’s first 11 games, Reinhart has started to evolve as a finisher at the NHL level. He’s always had the ability to find teammates with slick passes, but he’s really come into his own as a finisher over the last few months. Reinhart is now on pace to break the 20-goal plateau–a mark only five rookies managed to hit in 2014-15.
Eichel may be the beneficiary of his post-draft buzz, but a year after getting demoted after nine games, Reinhart is establishing himself as a star on the rise in Buffalo.