The development of rookie center Sam Reinhart will continue with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League.
The Buffalo Sabres announced Friday that Reinhart, the second overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, has been assigned to his junior club, meaning he won’t be eligible to return to the Sabres until next season.
Reinhart, who will turn 19 on Nov. 6, had one point – an assist – in nine NHL games this season. He currently checks in at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds and Sabres general manager Tim Murray would like him to take extra time to focus on getting stronger this season.
“[He’s] not strong or heavy enough yet. Just by getting stronger, he’s going to get quicker and faster but strength was an issue for me,” Murray said. “Watching him play, watching how important he was here, the minutes he got here, the situations he played in here told me it was time to get back.”
“…It’s about patience. It’s about doing the right thing and I believe this is the right thing.”
Murray met with Reinhart before the team took the ice for practice at First Niagara Center and said that Reinhart seemed to take the news well then. However, Reinhart was obviously disappointed and Murray said Reinhart was emotional after their meeting.
“It’s an emotional day. I told him, ‘You’re my first first-round draft pick as a GM.’ Obviously I was cheering for him, but I can’t let emotion come into play in the decision,” he said. “It has to be the decision that’s right, No. 1 for the organization and No. 2 him. It can’t be the right decision for me.
“I can’t keep him here and say, ‘Hey, hey, look what we did here. Our first-round pick played 82 games in his first year eligible.’ That’s craziness to me. It’s about doing what’s right for him and what’s right for the organization.”
Reinhart is a lock to make Team Canada’s World Junior Championship team and having the experience as one of the leaders on that team will help him in the long run. Murray hopes that Reinhart looks and achieves many shorter-term goals like playing well at the WJC and helping lead Kootenay into a playoff position.
Murray said that after seeing Reinhart play at the NHL-level, he never considered keeping him in Buffalo for the entire year just so he could observe and play a reduced role on the ice.
“I don’t see the value of the argument of you can sit on the bench here and work out versus going back to junior, no matter what he’s accomplished in junior,” Murray said. “Great players have gone back to junior. Ninety-nine percent of the players that play here have gone back to junior. He’s still going to get something out of it. He’s going to get the World Junior.
“Hopefully his team’s a playoff team. Every playoff game you play at every level is experience that you can’t take away from him. There are a lot of short-term things that he can take.”
Sabres coach Ted Nolan has often praised Reinhart’s hockey intelligence, his emotional maturity and his willingness to learn new things in all areas of the pro game. However, physically, the hockey department saw limitations in his game that will change with work and time.
“You look at the overall picture where he got knocked off the puck a little bit or he slipped underneath. Those things just come through with maturity and growth,” Nolan said. “You just let human nature take its course and with that, Sam’s going to develop into a stronger individual and he’s going to be an even better player.”
Reinhart was dominant in junior last season, scoring 105 points (36+69) in Kootenay. He also put up six goals and 17 assists in 13 playoff games. He was named the WHL’s Player of the Year and Most Sportsmanlike Player of the Year.
Buffalo, though, has struggled to produce offense through 11 games this season and Murray thinks that is part of the reason Reinhart looked like he needs more seasoning at the junior level.
“If the team is really successful, some individual success comes to young players. If the team is going through a rough patch, that kid will go through the rough patch with the team,” he said. “The 18 year old is not the guy who can get you out of the rough patch. He’s part of the tide, so when the tide’s high, he’s high; when the tide’s low, he’s low. I think that’s what we saw.”
Both Murray and Nolan still think the future is very bright for Reinhart. They’re well aware of his skill set and character.
“He’s a fine young man. There wasn’t one negative thing I saw. The one thing we want to do as mature adults is make sure we try to [make] the right decision for him and the right choice,” Nolan said.
“Throwing him in the fire a little too prematurely can hinder development. Right now, it’s about putting people in the right place and these kids have to develop and when they develop, we’re going to be a great team.”