Thursday, August 10, 2017

If Reinhart was moved to center--a look at the potential top-nine for Buffalo

Published by, 8-6-2017

The idea has been bantered about here for a little while--moving Sam Reinhart back to his natural center position. That move would inevitably have the former second-overall pick using his hockey IQ and set-up skills in a third line role. Although Kris Baker of and thinks it's a better idea not to label lines anymore. In a tweet touting the Reinhart move to center, Baker hearkens back to the 2005-07 Buffalo Sabres when he mentions the line of Daniel Briere centering Jochen Hecht and Ales Kotalik.
"Aiming for balance," wrote Baker in his tweet. "Matchups. Opponent picks their poison. I look at HBK as a "third" unit. No more #ing lines. Top line is who's going best."
It's certainly a "modern" way to look at the four-lines concept, but back in that day the Sabres did have themselves a helluva third line in that center Derek Roy was third on the depth chart behind Briere and Chris Drury. On one wing was Thomas Vanek and on the other was Maxim Afinogenov.
Regardless of how you want to categorize the lineup, one thing the Sabres do have today is strength down the middle much like they did when they went to consecutive Eastern Conference Finals those two seasons. With Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly occupying the top two center roles, perhaps Reinhart could be a Roy-like player to play the third center position.
What Phil Housley does on the wings with Reinhart moving out of the top-six is another matter.
Last year the duo of O'Reilly and right wing Kyle Okposo was formidable regardless of who their left-winger was and that included the likes of Matt Moulson for a good stretch early in the season. Players from William Carrier and Cole Schneider to Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, as well as Evander Kane, also made appearances on that line and despite the lineup turmoil and the injuries O'Reilly finished with 55 points (20+35) in 71 games while Okposo had 45 (19+26) in 65 games.
When Drury and JP Dumont were kickin' it in a two-way role for Buffalo the other winger for much of the time was Mike Grier who wasn't exactly a point producer (383 points in 1060 career NHL games,) but they clicked, which was huge for the forward group. Which may lead one to believe that free agent signee Benoit Pouliot may end up on the left side of O'Reilly/Okposo. At 30 and with steadily declining numbers over the past few seasons, Pouliot isn't exactly a top-line or even a full time top-six player, but in a world of numberless lines, that trio may have an impact if the chemistry is there.
Former Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma was big on forward pairings which is a good concept when you're constantly juggling players and lines. It worked well with the O'Reilly/Okposo pairing and it also worked very well with Reinhart on Eichel's wing. But moving Reinhart back to center breaks up that forward pairing. In doing so a Kane/Eichel pairing would move to the fore and insomuch wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Sure both like the puck on their sticks, but Kane's play has been moving in the direction where his Alpha-male overtones have receded. Perhaps we may be jumping the gun a bit on Kane maturing that far but those two, with their speed and talent and ability to create space, are a nightmare for defenses and they've proven it most of the time when they were on the same line the past two seasons.
Filling the right side of the Eichel/Kane duo is somewhat problematic with Reinhart moving away from that spot. Thirty-four year old Jason Pominville was brought back but a full time top-six spot, especially on the wing with those two might make him age even faster.
This might be a golden opportunity for a young player like Nick Baptiste to take the reigns of his NHL career. He has speed and size the ability to hound the puck and can either snipe or set up. He played 41 games for a loaded Erie Otters team featuring Connor McDavid scoring 26 goals and adding 27 assists in 41 games. His pro career has shown steady improvement as he's gained more experience and confidence.
Filling that RW slot with Baptiste, or even young Justin Bailey, would allow for a very intriguing pairing as a young and developing Reinhart could have Pominville as his mentor as the two have more similarities than differences in their styles of play. Filling that left wing role on that line may be somewhat of a problem.
Moulson might get the first crack at a situation like this as the team could really use more output from a player making $5 million. Or Zemgus Girgensons (if/when he re-signs) may find himself a home with a well-defined position that seemed to be lacking under Bylsma. Or there might be an opportunity for a younger player to take on that role. Maybe Bailey or a player like Evan Rodrigues.
Rodrigues finally began to find his stride last year with the Rochester Americans and although the numbers aren't eye-popping, his progress has been steady and getting stronger. He's got a very high hockey IQ, finds open space and can score. Lest we forget, he did play on Eichel's wing in college and although his development has been somewhat elongated at the pro-level, he has all the tools to hang with quality NHL players.
It's early August with hockey two months away it's way to early to tell what the Sabres roster will look like. With the lineup as laid out above with two youngins on board, the final five forward spots right now would consist of Moulson, Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Jacob Josefson and Nicolas Deslauriers.
However, this could be the Sabres top-nine should they decide to move Reinhart to center:
Is it a "pick your poison" lineup?
Not yet. But we've seen a helluva lot worse over the past few years or so.

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