The rumor mill is starting to pick up around the NHL as the calendar flips to June. Outside of re-signing Jeff Skinner, one of the things that should be at the top of the Buffalo Sabres priority list this summer is addressing the center position.
After the trade of Ryan O’Reilly last summer and unexpected departure of Patrik Berglund during the season, the club was left thin at the position. Casey Mittelstadt wasn’t ready to step up into a top six center role at this point in his career and they shouldn’t go into next season banking on that changing.
The catch to all of this is that the Sabres may not have a lot of options around the league to address their issue down the middle. Matt Duchene is the top center that could be available on the open market. Early rumors suggest that he could be headed for the Montreal Canadiens or Nashville Predators. Kevin Hayes is the second-best option, but his rights were just traded to the Philadelphia Flyers. If Hayes does still hit free agency it sounds like the Chicago Blackhawks are at the top of his list according to various reports.
They can explore the trade market, but only William Karlsson appears to be a significant center that could be acquired this summer. Although, the Vegas Golden Knights may move other pieces to hold onto him.
That brings us to perhaps one of the better options for the Sabres that is staring them right in the face. Their solution for the issue at center could be on the roster already. That player is none other than Sam Reinhart.
Before you roll your eyes if you’re opposed to this idea, I urge you to read the remainder of this with an open mind. I’m going to do my best to walk you through why this is a viable option. I was once of the belief that he should remain on the wing, but I’ve changed my view after studying the player.
Driver of Play
Reinhart has shown growth every year of his career since becoming a full-time NHL player. Last season he set a career-high in points with 65 in 82 games. He became one of the Sabres best offensive threats last year.
One of the traits a center should have is the ability to lead a line offensively. Reinhart emerged as a player that can drive play on his own line away from Jack Eichel. When given the opportunity last season he helped lift the game of players like Tage Thompson, Casey Mittelstadt, Evan Rodrigues, and even Vladimir Sobotka.
The isolated impact chart below from Micah McCurdy shows how Reinhart drives offense to the middle of the ice consistently when he’s on the ice. It also paints the picture of how he’s a net positive impact at both ends of the ice for his team.
Reinhart’s vision on the ice and hockey IQ are two other traits that make him an ideal candidate to move to center. Understanding how smart of a player he is can be difficult to measure because it’s in the small details of the game. Such minor details as re-loading with the puck when his teammates are changing, maintaining possession in the offensive zone in the middle of a line change and the ability to read the play quickly as it’s happening.
The former second overall pick is probably never going to be an elite goal scorer, but his vision makes him an elite playmaker. In the offensive zone, he can set up his teammates on the rush and from all over the ice if they’ve already established offensive zone possession.
Underrated Defensive Game
Being strong defensively is also key for a center in today’s NHL. The narrative has always been what Eichel has done to boost Reinhart. It’s rarely discussed how Reinhart has a big impact on Eichel’s play, especially defensively.
The past two years, Eichel has had better defensive metrics when he played with Reinhart than he did without him. Eichel’s numbers at 5 on 5 in expected goals against per 60 and goals against per 60 were in some cases considerably worse as you can see below in the chart using data from Natural Stat Trick.
Over the last three years, Reinhart has graded out as one of the Sabres best defensive forwards according to Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model. In the previous four years he’s ranked the following among all Sabres forwards:
- 15-16: 3rd
- 16-17: 2nd
- 17-18: 3rd
- 18-19: 6th
This past season was the only one in his career where he was a net negative in terms of their RAPM xGA/60. I’m not trying to say that Reinhart is some kind of defensive stalwart, but it’s a part of his game that is underrated.
A lot of fans are scared off from the idea of moving Reinhart because of the small sample size we saw to start the 2017-18 season. The Vancouver-native didn’t generate a lot of production as a center and after less than a quarter of the season, the idea was abandoned.
Looking back I’m not sure if we fully understood his overall impact and situation during that stretch of hockey where he played center. So, I went back and dug a little deeper into the data.
At the beginning of the 2017-18 season, he played 12 games as the pivot. Less than a quarter of a season isn’t necessarily a good evaluation time frame, but I digress. I started with the easy part and looked at his most common teammates (wingers) during that stretch. They were Zemgus Girgensons, Seth Griffith, and Nick Baptiste. He also at times had Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Nolan, Matt Moulson, and Justin Bailey on his wings.
Only one of those players are still an every day NHL player in Girgensons. That alone tells us a lot.
In those 12 games, Reinhart averaged a zone-start rate of 44.8%. Thus, meaning he started more of his shifts in the defensive zone for head coach Phil Housley. Giving a young player adjusting to a new position with bad teammates, considerably more defensive zone starts is an interesting coaching tactic.
The underlying numbers for the 23-year-old playing in the middle don’t jump out as anything spectacular, but all things considered, they’re not bad either. Here’s a breakdown of his on-ice Corsi, goal differential, and expected goals per 60 at 5 on 5 according to Evolving Hockey:
- onGF/60 – 1.30
- onGA/60 – 1.69
- CF%/60 – 49.1%
- xGF/60 – 1.89
- xGA/60 – 2.13
Reviewing the game by game data one particular game jumped out to me. On October 28th, against the San Jose Sharks, Reinhart played only eight minutes at even strength. His analytical numbers in this game were by far worse than any game. I usually don’t like to manipulate the data set but taking out this one game makes things interesting. Now, let’s look at his numbers with that one game removed.
- onGF/60 – 1.38
- onGA/60 – 1.32
- CF%/60 – 50.8%
- xGF/60 – 1.96
- xGA/60 – 1.79
All of a sudden Reinhart grades out as a positive player in 5 on 5 goal differential, possession, and expected goals. This is one of the issues in trying to evaluate a player in a small sample. One outlier can skew the numbers in a certain direction.
Considering the linemates he was saddled with the numbers are not bad for Reinhart. The Sabres never really gave him a full opportunity to see if he could handle playing that position. They also missed the opportunity to get another look at him playing center last season when they were well out of the postseason.
Recent history has shown us that players can successfully transition from playing the wing to center early in their careers. We’ve seen this position switch Sebastian Aho, Max Domi, and former Sabre Ryan O’Reilly.
Reinhart has all the traits and talent to play center in the NHL. If he’s given respectable linemates, it’s not out of the question he can succeed in this role. Moving Reinhart to center allows Jason Botterill to focus on other areas of his roster. It saves them for having to use a lot of assets to acquire a top six center. Instead, they can be used to acquire one or two wingers that seem to be available in greater supply this offseason.