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Sam Reinhart: A Case Study on a Developing Player

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Reinhart Has Been Disappointing, Can he Get Back on Track, and What is his Value?

2014 NHL Draft - Round 1
Sam Reinhart arriving to the 2014 NHL Draft with brothers Griffin and Max Reinhart.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

If you were to ask yourself which player has been the biggest disappointment during this season, the top contender would certainly be Sam Reinhart. After back to back 40 point seasons, and a 20 goal season in his rookie year, Sam Reinhart’s value has plummeted with just seven goals, 13 points in 44 games.

After a modest start to his career, Reinhart found his niche in the NHL on Jack Eichel’s right wing, not the top six center spot that he was initially projected to have when he was drafted back in 2014. Sam Reinhart looked like he would be a great linemate for Jack Eichel for the next five to ten years, and many hoped that he would take a step forward this season under new coach Phil Housley.

But not everybody has held a favorable view of Sam Reinhart, even when he was producing. Some fans have been unimpressed over Reinhart’s production, especially considering that the 2014 NHL Draft produced players such as Nikolaj Ehlers, Leon Draisaitl, and Dylan Larkin. For some fans, that is even more disappointing considering the Sabres tanked for their spot in that draft.

Over the past couple years, many people have thrown around ideas of swapping Reinhart for a defenseman like Noah Hanifin. At this point, we’d be lucky to get Anthony DeAngelo if we ever did move him.

Before the season started, did anybody expect the 35-year-old Jason Pominville to be outscoring Sam Reinhart? Ironically, Pominville was teammates with a guy who was also a former top-five draft pick, who was in a similar position that Sam Reinhart is in right now.

A Former Sabre Has Been Where Reinhart Is Right Now.


Tim Connolly was drafted fifth overall by the New York Islanders in the 1999 NHL Draft, and as we all know, he was traded to the Sabres for a disgruntled captain, Michael Peca. After back to back 40 point seasons with the Islanders and Sabres, Connolly had a brutal second season with the Sabres as he recorded 25 points in 80 games, and was a team low -28.

Before he went down in the 2003-04 preseason, Connolly was reported to have looked stronger and appeared to have a different attitude. He was determined to prove people that they were not wrong about him. Unfortunately, he lost his entire 2003-04 season due to post-concussion syndrome, and those same concussion issues would plague him for the rest of his career. The lockout may have been the best thing to happen to Connolly, giving him some extra time to recover before going to play in Switzerland.

Connolly returned to the Sabres in 2005 and was one of the team’s biggest surprises. Nobody was expecting Tim Connolly to breakout with 55 points in 63 games. Not only did Connolly have a strong showing in the regular season, he was also great in the playoffs, and was on par with both Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. After having eight points in the Philadelphia series, he had a strong game one against the Senators with two goals, and an assist in the 7-6 game one overtime win against the Senators. He would suffer another concussion in game two.

I would go as far to say that if the Sabres have Tim Connolly for the Carolina series before having a healthy defenseman, he probably has a ring. Connolly would spend the remainder of his career battling injuries, but when he was healthy, it’s safe to say he was able to shed the bust label many people would have placed on Connolly before the lockout.

Some people are putting that same label on Sam Reinhart. Connolly and Reinhart are completely different players, but the comparison is more from a career development standpoint as 21-22-year-old players who were former top-five draft picks. There is no questioning Connolly was way more skilled and had the slickest set of hands you’d find.
Even when Connolly was struggling early in his career, he would occasionally demonstrate with his hands why he was a former top-five pick.

Reinhart is a much smarter player who has an ability to slow things down and think the game very quickly. He probably will be much more durable than Tim Connolly ever was. Connolly also played in the NHL right away as an 18-year-old for the Islanders, and could have broken out five seasons after he was drafted, had it not been for a season-ending concussion he suffered in the 2003 preseason. We had to wait two more years until Connolly was 24 years old and healthy.

Sam Reinhart was at least allowed a full season of development with the Kootenay Ice of the WHL. The main point is, by career development comparison, Sam Reinhart very well may be a late bloomer and rebound like Tim Connolly.

As for right now, I am 100% positive that Jason Botterill has been talking calls on Sam Reinhart, and that there is plenty of interest around the league. Sam Reinhart has shown in the first two seasons that he can produce in the NHL with a 23 goal season as a rookie, and a 47 point season as a sophomore. He has also been a very strong Corsi and Fenwick player early in his career.

The problem is, the offers coming on the other end are likely not for Noah Hanifin. If there are offers, most of the offers are from teams hoping to low ball Botterill with a return of a second-round pick, and next-tier prospects. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get an offer like the Islanders got for Griffin Reinhart from Edmonton. We know he can play, and produce in the league. What we don’t know is where his ceiling is.

Olli Jokinen: A Second Example of a Turnaround


Olli Jokinen is another example of a high pick who broke out later in his career and rebounded. But in Jokinen’s case, he was a complete bust as a former third overall pick He didn’t have back to back 40 point seasons to start his career. Jokinen never once topped more than 29 points prior to his breakout year as a 24-year-old fifth year player in Florida. Jokinen broke out for 36 goals, and 65 points in 2003-04. How did Jokinen turn it around and breakout as a 24-year-old player in the league?

If you go back and look at research Jokinen’s turnaround, a lot of the credit goes to the Florida Panthers coach Mike Keenan, a man who became known for his lack of term in a coaching position. But he did have a track record of pushing young talented players to get where they should be.

Mike Keenan pushed Chris Pronger hard in St. Louis when he was traded to the Blues from the Hartford Whalers. Pronger was a player who was traded during a disappointing second season with the Hartford Whalers. By the time Keenan was done with him, Pronger was one of the team’s strongest defenseman, and after Keenan’s departure would be named Captain of the Blues, and became a Norris Trophy winner. Keenan also did the same thing to Joe Thornton in Boston.

Olli Jokinen might have been the biggest pet project he ever took on. He was given to Keenan as a classic NHL Draft bust, and when Keenan first arrived, he called out Jokinen in front of the entire locker room. A 2002 article by Michael Farber who wrote for Sports Illustrated at the time, wrote an article titled “Busting out considered a flop his first four years, Olli Jokinen of the Panthers is finally playing like a No. 3 draft pick”.
He had this to say on Keenan’s impact on Jokinen’s breakout back in 2002:

Keenan takes a young, indisputable talent, challenges him to improve his fitness, rewards him with ice time and leavens the mix with what Panthers third-liner Peter Worrell calls an “Iron Miking,” a tirade that embarrasses the player. Jokinen received his within 10 days of Keenan’s arrival in Florida last December. After the first period of a game against the Hurricanes, Keenan spent 10 minutes dressing down Jokinen in front of teammates, saying those scouts who had raved about him as a junior were wrong.

”The message was that I wasn’t ready to play,” Jokinen says. “You can take it two ways, and I took it the right way.”

The article also noted how Jokinen dropped his body fat in his second season under Keenan and changed his attitude and confidence level. Jokinen did respond to it well and earned more ice time under Mike Keenan. During the first two months under Keenan, Jokinen only played anywhere between ten to thirteen minutes a night. He had one goal and one point during the first two months in his first year under Keenan.

December rolled around, and Jokinen earned more ice time, and by January of 2002, Jokinen was playing around 20 minutes a night. In his final 50 games, he scored 25 points and improved into a half point per game player before breaking out the next season.

Trading Former Top Prospects is Risky, Especially Top Five Picks

The Boston Bruins have traded top ten talents several times over the past few years including Phil Kessel, Dougie Hamilton, Blake Wheeler, most notably Tyler Seguin. But with mixed results

Tyler Seguin who was a piece of the Kessel deal was productive, but not quite the player Boston hoped for right off the bat. He has responded to the trade exceptionally well since being moved to Dallas for Loui Eriksson and has been an offensive juggernaut in the league.

Blake Wheeler, on the other hand, was an example of a high first round pick who went the college route and never signed with the team that drafted him, the Phoenix Coyotes. He signed with the Bruins, but after a 21 goal, 45 point rookie year, he had regressed every year since Boston signed him. He was dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers back in 2011.

Wheeler was reported to have taken the trade as a slap to the face, but luckily for Boston, they did manage to win the Stanley Cup after getting some pieces in return to help them get there such as Rich Peverley, who helped them win the Stanley Cup. Still, not every team would win a Stanley Cup in such a scenario.

Long-term, Blake Wheeler has been a consistent 60-70 point, two-way forward for the Jets since the deal, and is now their captain on a team having a strong year.

Many times through history, we have seen former top prospects get traded from the organizations that originally drafted them only to have them blow up elsewhere. Fifteen years ago, the Vancouver Canucks benefited from two teams giving up on their top prospects with Todd Bertuzzi, and Markus Naslund. Ironically, both guys also got the chance to play for Mike Keenan.

Naslund was acquired from Pittsburgh in one of the most lopsided deals in league history for Alek Stojanov. Bertuzzi was acquired with Bryan McCabe and a third-round pick for Trevor Linden. They would also acquire Brendan Morrison during that period and for the West Coast Express line with Naslund and Bertuzzi and would make two trips to the conference finals.

What Is Sam Reinhart’s Ceiling?


I’ve compared him numerous times to Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks. Couture has been a career 50-60 point player in the league during his career. But unlike Sam Reinhart, Logan Couture came into the league with lower expectations, and less pressure than Sam Reinhart.

People might have already forgotten that the Sabres went through a lot of trouble to get Reinhart to begin with. We had a 52 point 2013-14 season to get the high pick to select one of those four top players in the 2014 NHL Draft in Reinhart, Leon Draisaitl, Aaron Ekblad, and Sam Bennett. At this point, many fans might have wished it was Draisaitl, but thank god it wasn’t Sam Bennett or even Michael Dal Colle.

Couture, on the other hand, was drafted ninth overall by the Sharks in 2007, who moved up to get him. Couture also walked into one of the best team’s in the NHL during that time period. In his rookie season, he walked into a locker room that was coming off a 113 point season and had established veterans such as Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Dan Boyle, Dany Heatley, Antti Niemi, and Ryane Clowe.

He was not drafted as one of the franchise cornerstones like Sam Reinhart was, and was not joining a team that was rebuilding from scratch.

The comparison of Reinhart to Couture stems from both players being very smart players with high hockey IQ’s, and skill. Both players are not explosive skaters by any stretch, Couture is an above average skater, Reinhart is actually a better skater. Couture is a more natural goal scorer, a better faceoff man, and right now a better defensive forward. Although both guys play center and wing, Couture is more of a capable centerman than Reinhart right now.

What Logan Couture has been able to do at this stage of his career is shoulder the load for the forwards on the Sharks. Earlier in his career, that probably wasn’t something he was able to do. He could produce points in the league as a 50 to 60 point player, but with a strong roster of players around him.

Today, the Sharks are not as threatening up front with players such as Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski aging and in decline, and with Patrick Marleau now in Toronto, Couture has been the Sharks leading scorer, and best all-around forward and has reached the peak of his career at 28 years old.

He’s produced in the league before as a perennial 25 goal, 50-60 point player, but this year Couture has been asked to essentially carry the offense in San Jose as they are 28th in the league in goals forward, and a big part of the reason why they are rumored to be interested in Evander Kane.

Reinhart did not have the same luxuries Couture might have had when he was developing as a player. Couture was allowed to develop in the OHL, and then the AHL for two and half years before being worked into the Sharks and joining a roster that has established veterans and joining one of the top teams in the league at the time.

Reinhart was drafted as a franchise cornerstone, and one of the guys that were supposed to lead the next generation of the Sabres. Couture also walked into a much more stable organization with the Sharks. The only General Manager that Couture has known is Doug Wilson, and for the majority of his career, he was coached by Todd McLellan for the first five years of his career, and now Peter DeBoer.

Sam Reinhart has been in the league three years and the GM who originally drafted him is gone, as his the first NHL Head Coach he’s had in Dan Bylsma. He’s now in a new system under Phil Housley, with a new GM in Botterill, and god only knows if there will be any changes to the coaching staff after this season, not with Housley, but more likely with the assistants such as Davis Payne.

What Should Sam Reinhart’s Next Contract Look Like?

The best comparable for Reinhart’s next contract would be Elias Lindholm from the Carolina Hurricanes. Lindholm was drafted 5th overall in 2013 and after his standard entry-level deal expired in 2016, the Hurricanes extended him to a two year, 5.4 million dollar deal. Lindholm was coming off back to back 39 point seasons.

Nail Yakupov is another example and signed a two year, 2.5 million contract after his entry-level deal expired coming off a 14 goal, 33 point season. Sam Reinhart likely should expect a two year, 2.5 million dollar deal barring a strong finish to the season.

It’s scary to mention Reinhart and Yakupov together, but in terms of the actual contract, it is right around where Reinhart’s next deal should be.

The good news is that the Sabres should get an affordable player for the next two years on a bridge deal, which helps especially since we have one more year of Matt Moulson’s contract on the books, as well as one more year of Jason Pominville and his 5.6 million cap hit, and two more years of Zach Bogosian and his contract.

Let’s not even talk about Kyle Okposo’s contract, but Okposo is still a respectable player, and I do believe his injury last year had a lot to do with his slow start in October. Believe it or not, Okposo has actually been one of the Sabres most productive forwards since November with 22 points in his last 32 games. Still, Okposo’s contract can still be a burden on a team if he enters a major decline.

I would love to have Leon Draisaitl, but the long-term situation gets a little more challenging with a second big contract.

What Should the Sabres Do With Sam Reinhart?

The obvious choice is to keep him unless ends up being a locker room distraction, or unhappy with his role on the team. While not a complete bust like Olli Jokinen was before Mike Keenan arrived in Florida, he has been a disappointment this season, and a good part of why this team has regressed from last season.

Reinhart simply is not where he should be right now in his development. If the Sabres got an offer for a Reinhart which involved a first-tier prospect, and maybe some picks, you have to take that, especially if it’s a defensive prospect. You’d also do it because Sam Reinhart’s value is rock bottom right now.

Realistically if the Sabres are getting offers on Reinhart, it’s likely from General Managers trying to low ball the Sabres. It has been implied that if you’re calling about a Sam Reinhart, you better be making one hell of an offer. For now, you’d be lucky to receive Haydn Fleury, and a couple picks for Reinhart, let alone an “A” tier young player like Noah Hanifin, or an “A” tier prospect like a Jake Bean.

For now, the best thing to do for the Sabres is to keep him, because even if he never recovers after this year, he is a former second overall pick that we went through a lot of trouble to get, and the risk of trading him with his value being so low is just far too great. If he blows up on a different team, that will make Sabres management look very bad.

Conclusion

Right now, Reinhart’s development is in a critical phase which can go either way. Tim Connolly, as well as Olli Jokinen, have shown proof that turnarounds are possible, although Connolly had way more obstacles to climb with his injuries. Tim Connolly showed some promise in his second season with the Islanders 41 points as a 19-year-old on an awful New York Islanders team.

It was very surprising at the time that the New York Islanders GM Mike Milbury would trade Connolly (with Taylor Pyatt), for the disgruntled Buffalo Sabres captain Michael Peca. Connolly showed promise in his first year with the Sabres as a 20-year-old, third-year player with 45 points, but then stumbled the next year.

Sam Reinhart has also shown promise with the Sabres early on but is having a major regression this year. This hasn’t been a Yakupov situation yet, but we also should not just give him away unless it’s an overpay. The value is simply not there right now, and he’s just far too difficult to price. You can make a case that Robin Lehner has more trade value right now than Sam Reinhart if there is a team that needs a goaltender bad enough like the Islanders for example.

There will be some good that comes out of this from a financial perspective. We get to buy time with an affordable player on the roster in Reinhart for some of the less favorable contracts to expire like Matt Moulson’s buried AHL contract, Jason Pominville’s final year next season, and Zach Bogosian’s remaining two years after this season, as well as getting deeper into Kyle Okposo’s contract.

I know for many Okposo’s deal may not be favorable, but the deeper we get into his term, the easier he may be to dump off onto a rebuilding team looking to get to the cap floor if you can get him to waive his No movement clause of course, or get to a point where you can buy him out. A buyout wouldn’t be an option for Okposo until the final season of his deal in 2022 when a buyout would cost 3.3 million against the cap, and an additional 1.3 million after that. Hopefully, we still get some production out of Okposo for the next two-three years.

We also get to see how good Casey Mittelstadt will be over the next couple years if he’s on the Sabres next year. He could be a guy who gets a good sized contract right after his entry-level deal expires when he signs in Buffalo. In such a scenario, the Sabres might have a decision to make, especially if Reinhart rebounds and breaks out in a couple years.

If Reinhart is going to be here for at least two more years, the Sabres will need to figure out how to get him there. Is it how he’s used? Is it the quality of linemates? Is Phil Housley the right coach for him? Maybe Sam Reinhart needs a tougher coach to motivate him to be successful? Or maybe he just needs time to mature, and figure out what it takes to be great in the NHL?

If the organization cannot figure out how to get him to the next level, or if there is a disconnect between the Sabres and Reinhart, then a change of scenery may be the best option for both sides. Change of scenery doesn’t always work for both sides either.

There is a risk for the team dealing the player, as well as the player himself. Sam Reinhart’s older brother Griffin was traded to the NY Islanders for a 2015 first Round Pick, 16th overall (Matthew Barzal), and the 33rd overall pick, and then was later exposed in the expansion draft. Two changes of scenery have not done well for the elder Reinhart, although the Islanders have made up for a mistake with drafting Matthew Barzal who has 39 points in 43 games.

Trading Sam Reinhart could really save the rebuild if you can get the big return for him, but so can Sam Reinhart breaking out and having a major rebound season.