With a nickname like ‘Big Cat’ people are predisposed to believe you’re one cool customer, not too hotheaded, irrational or overly aggressive. Griffin Reinhart can be described as such, although you might also think of ‘Big Cat’ as, well, a big cat — aggressive with an inclination toward altercation.
At 6-foot-4, Reinhart does have the size that leads outside observers to believe he could be predisposed to physical altercations. While the Oilers defenceman isn’t necessarily drawn to the rough stuff, focusing more on the defending aspect of his game, Reinhart doesn’t shy away from playing aggressively in the right spots. In fact, he’s been finding more of an edge to his game lately as he works toward becoming a full-time NHL player.
“I realize I’m not going to be one of the tough guys in the league and go in and fight everybody, but when a hit is there and it’s presenting itself I’ve got to take it,” said Reinhart. “But I’ve got to stick to my game. I can’t go looking for that all the time and make sure I don’t get caught.”
It’s not about levelling guys at centre ice or cross-checking and hacking away left and right. It’s not even about throwing punches. Having an edge can be about, simply, being hard to play against.
“It’s going to get me a little more respect,” Reinhart said. “Maybe somebody is not going to want to come to the corner when I’m there. It’s something I’m going to continue to work on. I have to do that every day though. It can’t just be show up every couple of games and have it.”
Against St. Louis Wednesday night, Reinhart had perhaps one of his better and more physically assertive games. On his opening shift, Reinhart nicely finished a check against David Backes, who is no small opponent. In the third period, Reinhart would bury the same skater along the wall following Backes’ hit on his defensive partner, Jordan Oesterle.
From the start of the night, Reinhart felt good about the physical side of his game. He and Oesterle were on a mission to rack up a lot of ice time, although some of Reinhart’s minutes were trimmed with Edmonton drawing several penalties. Reinhart only played 41 seconds on the man advantage and finished the game having played a total of 17:45.
“I thought we played well defensively,” said Oesterle. “We were making good plays north (up the ice) and Griff was taking the body. I was just trying to be an out for him whenever he had the puck.”
Photo by Andy Devlin
Reinhart finished Wednesday’s 6-4 win with a team-high six hits. Following the game, Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan said he has liked the blueliner’s assertiveness since returning from the American Hockey League via recall March 7.
Assertiveness is something Reinhart himself has used to describe where he needs more consistency in order to stay in Edmonton for the long haul. But being assertive doesn’t mean Reinhart needs six hits a night to have a good game.
“Assertive and physical are two different things in my opinion,” said McLellan. “Assertive can lead to physicality, but assertive is reading plays and getting close to them, closing quickly, being aggressive and being part of the play, challenging yourself to make quick reads and that type of stuff. That’s assertiveness. It’s not just backing in and taking it. Be aggressive and go get it.”
One thing helping Reinhart take on a ‘go-get-it’ attitude is he’s confident in his position with the team right now. An injury-riddled blueline has provided Reinhart with a more stable position on Edmonton’s roster in this final stretch of the season.
“When you come in in the morning every day and you’re checking to see if your number is in the lineup or not, it’s a bit hard sometimes,” said Reinhart. “Your confidence goes down a little bit maybe, but knowing that I’m going to play and especially playing with Oesterle, who I am familiar with, I think that helps.”
“He knows he’s going to be in the lineup, and that’s important to a player,” said McLellan. “You feel a little more confident. You look around and you don’t see many defencemen there and you know you’re going to play, and when you know you’re going to play you feel a little more comfortable automatically. Even if you make a mistake, you know you’re going to play again.”
Photo by Andy Devlin
Reinhart, taken fourth overall in 2012, is still ripening with just 86 AHL and 28 NHL games under his belt. There are going to be mistakes made and off-nights. It’s about the quality of those mistakes and the lessons derived from them that will help the 22-year-old along the way.
“If you’re going to play in the NHL, you’re going to make mistakes and you have to recover from them quickly,” said McLellan. “That’s part of maturing and being able to put it behind you and get out and go. The mistake is going to lead to some direction, some instruction and you have to do that the right way and, I’m not just talking about Griffin but anybody, you have to accept it the right way.”
Then, McLellan says, the player has to apply the lessons learned. If a mistake is made again, the staff will help the player again.
“I don’t ever expect our teams to play mistake free. It’s impossible. But, as long as the mistake is effort-based and team-based and system-based, we can live with that,” said McLellan. “When you choose not to do it, you know the right thing to do but choose not to, then that’s when we have a problem.”
As Reinhart continues to grow more confident with the Oilers, he strives to assert himself more, like he did against St. Louis, both physically and also with jumping up, making plays and having the confidence to win battles and contribute all over the ice.
“I think part of that is just getting in a routine night in and out and playing day in and day out,” he said. “I think that helps me get in a groove and get my confidence up and I’ve got to continue to play with a bit of an edge.”