The Buffalo Sabres have a tough decision to make this fall when they welcome Sam Reinhart to training camp.The team must decide whether to send the second overall pick from the 2014 draft to junior hockey or to keep him in the NHL and start the clock on his contract years as a 19-year-old pro. Don’t be surprised if management makes the less popular decision and sends Reinhart back to the Kootenay Ice, where he’d play junior hockey in the WHL for another year of seasoning. In fact, you should be encouraged if they do just that.
As fun as it might be to have Sam Reinhart play all year with the Buffalo Sabres next season, it’s simply not the best decision for the team’s long term interests, and there is plenty of history to suggest as much.
The question isn’t whether Sam Reinhart would or wouldn’t make the Sabres better next season. He would. This team has about four players who can score points on a regular basis in the NHL (generously stated) and none of them hold the potential of Reinhart. There are few, if any, true centers on this team and Reinhart’s game is best attuned to the center position. He would struggle for much of the year, but he’d probably rank somewhere in the middle of the team in points.
But how much would Reinhart help a Buffalo Sabres team that was one of the 40 worst offensive teams in NHL history last season? This team, despite a flurry of summer activity, did not drastically improve its roster from that of last year. The Sabres became more respectable by picking up some well-regarded veterans, but they didn’t pick up big offensive talent or proven defensive depth, and their goalie situation is unproven as well.
This team is bad with or without Sam Reinhart, so whatever improvement he bestows on Buffalo will be marginal and at best would only return this team to a mediocre place in the standings — certainly nowhere near the playoffs. If the Sabres aren’t going to make the playoffs this year, then they might as well get as far down in the standings as they can in order to pick up more promising young players like Reinhart.
Any disappointment in this decision stems from the assumption that Sam Reinhart will be a stud in the NHL, which is far from a foregone conclusion. What happens if the Sabres put Reinhart in the lineup and he is overwhelmed or outmatched, much like Mikhail Grigorenko?
The Sabres were bad when they brought up Grigorenko for the first time and not only did the Sabres get no better because of him, but the whole mess set Grigorenko’s contract years in motion. He will be negotiating a new deal after this season, having played just 43 NHL games to this point. That’s three years of his entry-level contract burned for a maximum of 125 regular season NHL games played.
Maybe you’re still not convinced. After all, Reinhart is considered a better prospect than Grigorenko. Let’s compare Reinhart to someone who was roughly as ready for the NHL as Reinhart is projected to be.
Consider Sean Monahan on last year’s Calgary Flames squad. The Flames entered last season with no hope of the playoffs and a sixth overall pick from the previous draft, Monahan, who offered some promise.
Monahan played 75 games for the Flames this past season, his first in the organization, tallying 22 goals and 12 assists. Not bad for a 19 year old kid. Except the Flames turned all that added success into the fourth-worst record in the NHL. And while Monahan is undeniably a great prospect with a bright future, there is plenty of evidence that the Flames may have done more harm than good in keeping Monahan in the NHL all year.
The very best case scenario for Sam Reinhart playing all year in Buffalo is that he scores at a rate comparable to Monahan’s or other good but not generational rookies and the Sabres are a tiny bit better for it. Meanwhile, Reinhart will get shellacked by guys who are bigger and stronger than him on a team that is going nowhere in the 2014-15 season. Every big hit he absorbs, any concussion he gets, will be for literally nothing. The very best the Sabres could do is creep out of last place and ultimately see their odds go down of winning the Connor McDavid Lottery.
The worst case scenario is that Reinhart isn’t ready for the pros this year, takes a beating from a full pro season at age 19, the Sabres burn one year of his entry-level contract a la Grigorenko and Monahan, along with everything bad that comes with the ‘best case scenario’.
The only real ‘best case scenario’ for Sam Reinhart this year is for him to play the first nine games of the NHL season, then pack his bags for Kootenay. The Sabres have plenty of young players to ease in the system and we saw last year what happens when you throw every player you have under 21 into one heaping mess on NHL ice.
As long as you believe that this Sabres team is roughly as bad as they were last year — albeit with a more structured team makeup — then you know that this season has one goal and its name is Connor McDavid. Losing sight of that goal in the spirit of getting an extended look at a highly drafted rookie would fail to justify all this awful hockey fans have suffered through in the name of long-term success.
Reinhart will be there next year and he’ll only be better then than he is now. Starting the clock one year late on a prospect as highly regarded as Sam Reinhart could save the team millions against the cap in Reinhart’s sixth or seventh NHL year, when the Sabres would ideally be in playoff contention and in need of any cap space they could get.
There’s so much long-term upside and so little short-term gain that the choice is clear: Sam Reinhart needs to stay in the juniors next season. If he doesn’t, it will be a blunder equal to anything done in the previous regime from which Sabres fans waited so long to escape.