After spending most of the summer trying to figure out where forward Sam Reinhart might fit into the Sabres roster under new head coach Dan Bylsma, or even if he would at one point, in building the roster for that season I placed him centering the third line. Here's what I wrote:
"Over the course of the last year Reinhart has shown the ability to dominate while playing against his peers, something that bodes well for the future. Near-term, however, he'll need to prove that he can adapt and produce at the NHL-level and a good start for him this season is playing on the third line at a position he's accustomed to--center.
"Rochester is always an option should he have trouble adapting, but that "fighting weight" of 190, his improved skating, a familiarity with how the pro game is played and his off the charts hockey sense should keep him in the NHL for the rest of his career."
Not only did Reinhart stick with the team, he ended up second on the team in goals with 23 and third in points with 42 while playing out of position on the right side. What's even more peculiar about those stats is that Reinhart was touted as more of a set-up man coming out of junior. In a tribute to his hockey sense Reinhart was able to make the transition to the right side while his hard work, as well as some keen insight from Bylsma, helped him overcomes some early season struggles.
Reinhart started the season on the second line with Jack Eichel at center and Evander Kane at left wing. The line failed to generate much that game and the next game Reinhart found himself on the fourth line which is pretty much where he stayed for the next couple of games. He was promoted back to the first line for a game at Tampa and proceeded to score his first NHL goal on a feed from Tyler Ennis.
How he got back to the first line is an interesting case study. Reinhart spent time after practice with Ryan O'Reilly working on areas of weakness. O'Reilly's after-practice sessions have become somewhat legendary and Reinhart was in on them from the get-go.
"I don’t think I would be where I am right now without him," said Reinhart to Sabres.com's Jourdan LaBarber. "I've felt a lot better with my game as I've progressed and he's a big reason why. Just spending those extra, really hours each day just working on the ice afterwards, it can go a long way."
Bylsma concurred telling LaBarber, "I don’t know if Sam would’ve improved without that. I don’t have to wonder, that’s a big part of Sam's development has been the work, the extra he's put in with Ryan."
The coach should give himself a little pat on the back as well. With the demotion to the fourth line Reinhart needed a confidence boost and Bylsma decided to put the 6' 1" 190 lb. Reinhart in front of the net on the first powerplay unit. It paid dividends. Reinhart provided the screen that lead to a powerplay goal in two consecutive games before moving back up to the top line and scoring his first NHL goal against the Lightning.
By mid-season Reinhart began to find his groove as well as a scoring touch that would see him score eight goals in 34 games on a 12.3% shooting percentage. By the end of the year his 23 goals would come on a team-leading 13.9%.
What will he do for an encore?
The word "encore" may not even be in Reinhart's vernacular. The 20 yr. old is still in his first act at the NHL level as he's only entering his sophomore season. What's good for him and good for the Sabres is that Reinhart has done everything asked of him to get to this point in his young career. In 2014 when he was sent down after a nine-game stint with Buffalo, Sabres GM Tim Murray told an "emotional" Reinhart to go back to junior and work on strength and conditioning. Amidst a 47-game junior schedule while playing for Kootenay of the WHL, Reinhart carved out as much time as he could to hit the weight room. He also slid in an All-Tournament Team nod at the 2015 World Junior Championships while leading Team Canada to the gold medal as he was widely considered the best player on the Canadian team. And that included one Connor McDavid.
Reinhart finished his 2014-15 hockey campaign with a three game stint in Rochester where he looked comfortable on the ice and contributed three assists. And at development camp that July, he hit the ice looking bigger and he continued a strong 2015 half by scoring two goals and adding an assist as his team defeated Jack Eichel's team in the Blue and Gold Scrimmage in front of 17,115 fans at the First Niagara Center.
Be it known that when the Sabres entered the 2014 NHL Draft with the second-overall pick and what looked like it would be a choice between the two Sam's--Reinhart and Bennett--I leaned towards the latter for reasons I laid out at the time. Bennett may end up being everything that everyone thought he would be but after watching Reinhart for a full season, I fully realize what then head scout Kevin Devine had to say about him, "[Reinhart's] got a very subtle game. If you watch him only once or twice you say 'What's the big deal?' but when you continue to watch him, you see how smart a player he is. He's a real character kid."
Yup. Pretty that's pretty much it for me.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
D, Rasmus Ristolainen / D, Dmitry Kulikov
G, Robin Lehner