BUFFALO – It all starts for real Thursday for Sam Reinhart.
The Buffalo Sabres' first-round pick and the second player taken in the 2014 NHL Draft will make his debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets. After a busy summer with development camp and training camp, he's ready to make an impact.
"I came in with the mentality that I was going to soak everything in and I feel I've learned more than I could ever imagine from all the veteran guys here," Reinhart said. "I'm going to keep trying to learn every day from them and get better with their help."
Reinhart won't be the only young player on the Sabres' opening-night roster; 19-year-old defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov were first-round picks in 2013. But he'll be on a line between two more-experienced players, Cody Hodgson and captain Brian Gionta.
"They're obviously very smart players and good players," Reinhart said of his linemates. "I feel if I move the puck to them and get myself open, we're going to create a lot of chances. I feel comfortable on that line."
Reinhart playing alongside Gionta shouldn't come as a surprise. The Sabres' youngest player being on a line with its oldest makes sense at first glance, but it's logical in other areas too.
"We looked throughout the whole lineup which combination would suit [Reinhart] the best, especially early," coach Ted Nolan said. "And Gionta, he's not wearing the captain's 'C' for no reason; he's a true leader. And if you have a guy like him flanking your wing, hopefully it'll be more of a settling influence on a kid than not."
Having two players with varying levels of experience should help Reinhart when it comes to the kind of spotlight he'll face in his first game.
"The advice comes as mistakes happen or you see things, but he's the type of kid away from the rink, off the ice – he's got a good head on his shoulders," said Gionta, who was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the third round (No. 82) in 1998. "You're not going to have to try to babysit him off the ice. It's [about] letting him mature as a player on the ice and learning the NHL game. That just comes as it comes."
At 24, Hodgson is 11 years younger than Gionta. As the Vancouver Canucks' first-round pick (No. 10) in 2008, he knows what it's like to have the eyes of a hockey-crazed city watching you.
"I know when I was younger it was a different situation, different team, different organization and different players, but the biggest adjustment, I think, from junior hockey to professional is really off the ice," Hodgson said. "That's the biggest thing I've seen transition-wise is eating right, getting your rest and not worrying about things once you're away from the rink. You've done all you can do, so just relax and enjoy it and don't sit at home and worry about what could happen. There's a lot of things that could happen. You just have to take things one day at a time. Every day you're here it's nice to be here, and you've got to be grateful for that."
As for Reinhart on the ice, he's gotten the attention of his linemates.
"Every day his confidence is rising," Hodgson said. "You can see it in the way he's skating and the way he's communicating and that stuff. You can tell on the ice he's getting more comfortable and that's a huge bonus for our team. He's going to be a great hockey player."
Reinhart being comfortable on the ice is an important factor because his future with the Sabres is undecided. Should he play in nine games, the Sabres will have to decide whether to keep him and officially start the first year of his entry-level contract or send him back to his junior team, the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League.
"I'm always going to be trying to prove myself," Reinhart said. "No matter what the situation is, no matter what game it is in the season. Here, I'm just focusing day by day, and my focus right now is on the next however many [games] I have to make a statement."
If there's something the Sabres don't want Reinhart to feel right away, it's pressure.
"We know what he has to offer now," Nolan said. "He has to deliver it in a big man's game. He can't afford to be nervous. He's got to go right in and play as best as he can and, of course, the vets will help him get through those early jitters in the first shift. He's playing his first NHL game. He's going to be nervous. You get through those types of things and hopefully he settles in and plays the way he's capable of playing."
Expectations may be high at the moment for Reinhart, but if the excitement and nerves of playing in the NHL are getting to him, he's not letting it show.
"Obviously the pace of play is a little bit different," Reinhart said. "I felt that the style of game I play, as I start to adjust to that, I'm going to feel more comfortable and start to adapt. I feel great going into the season and competing every day to try and earn my spot."