Buffalo Sabres: What Should They Do with Sam Reinhart This Year?

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It’s a dilemma Buffalo Sabres fans aren’t new to, but it’s certainly one that could be hotly debated from now through mid-October. 

What should they do with Sam Reinhart this year?

While on the surface it seems like an easy decision for Sabres general manager Tim Murray and his colleagues, it truly is anything but for a team with two feet in its rebuilding process. 

There are a number of different factors that will go into this decision, but there are three main considerations for the organization. Reinhart comes with huge expectations, especially after being named NHL.com’s fourth-ranked prospect earlier this week, but he is a part of the future, which is clearly not this season for the Sabres. 

The first and probably the easiest to answer is whether Reinhart is too good to return to the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League.

This is an important consideration because of the agreement in place between the CHL, which includes the WHL, and the NHL, which essentially prohibits 18- and 19-year-old CHL prospects from playing in the American Hockey League. 

That means Reinhart will be in Kootenay or in Buffalo.

And the reality is that he is likely too good for juniors.

In his third full season in the WHL, Reinhart scored 105 points in 60 games, which was good for fourth in the league. If it weren’t for the fact that he is a shoe-in for the Canadian World Junior roster if he stays in juniors, he’d likely be a favorite to top the league in scoring this year.

But is going back to a league where he has been so dominant good for his development? That’s the question Murray needs to ponder as training camp inches closer. 

If Murray believes Reinhart can benefit in any way from staying with Kootenay, it seems reasonable, especially given the struggles the Sabres will have on the ice this year, that he’d want him there. But scoring two points a game against players that he is leaps and bounds better than will likely not give Reinhart the step forward he’ll need to make the Sabres a Stanley Cup contender. 

Essentially, the Sabres are trying to avoid the Mikhail Grigorenko situation from playing out again. Grigorenko was in a similar spot in that he was close to being too good to stay with Quebec of the QMJHL, but in his second season in North America, he wasn’t ready for the NHL either. 

But can Reinhart play in the NHL this season? 

That is probably the most obvious, and most important, factor that will go into this decision. And while you cannot really know the answer until Reinhart suits up, there is some relevant recent history to help guide the debate.

The most striking example was Jonathan Drouin, drafted third overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013. The Lightning shocked pretty much everyone when they decided to send Drouin back to Halifax of the QMJHL last year after a preseason of everyone fawning over the potential of him playing with Steven Stamkos

Drouin made the most of his return to juniors, scoring a ridiculous 108 points in his 46 games with Halifax and adding a strong showing for Team Canada in the World Junior Championships. 

Drouin‘s former Halifax teammate Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick in 2013, stuck with the Colorado Avalanche last season and started off slowly, but he finished the season tied for Colorado’s playoff scoring lead. 

MacKinnon has the ability to be a point-per-game player as early as this season if his development progresses at the level many believe it will. 

Two very talented players, two very different teams for the 2013-14 season. 

So where does Reinhart fit?

He’s an excellent puck handler and likely has the hockey IQ to keep up in the NHL, but his skating and his strength may hold him back to start. Let’s not skate around the fact that Reinhart will likely be an excellent player in the league for a long time, but if MacKinnon struggled a bit to start, he definitely can, too. 

So, seeing Reinhart is likely too good for the WHL but unlikely to be able to play top-six minutes to start, how does Murray decide?

A third factor that has gone a bit under the radar may ultimately be the deciding one: Reinhart‘s contract. 

While there’s a great argument in regards to Grigorenko and his development, the biggest issue the Sabres face with the young pivot is the fact that he is a restricted free agent after this season. While he has not contributed much at the NHL level, he is still an NHL lottery pick, and those negotiations will likely be interesting, to say the least. 

On a rebuilding team, the ability to push off Reinhart‘s contract negotiations for another year could be very appealing, especially given his presence is not going to make or break the team this year. 

What it comes down to is Murray doesn’t have the external pressures to play Reinhart for anything more than his nine-game tryout period this season like former Sabres GM Darcy Regier had with Grigorenko. Murray can make the decision that makes the most sense moving forward, and with Reinhart‘s skill level likely being above that of the WHL but potentially not a top-six NHL forward to start the season, his sliding contract could play a huge part in the decision. 

Regardless, Sabres fans will see Reinhart in a Sabres uniform this season, it’s just a matter of whether it’s for nine or 82 games. 

Also, Reinhart will play in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament starting Friday in Michigan with other Sabres top prospects. Check out the schedule here.

 

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season: @SwordPlay18

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