ST. PAUL, Minn. – If it’s possible to fly under the radar as a No. 2 overall draft pick in a NHL rookie season, Sam Reinhart is doing a darn good job of it.
There’s so much attention being paid to Jack Eichel’s debut campaign, what’s now a 23-goal pace for Reinhart is going pretty overlooked. That might be about to change.
Reinhart posted his first career hat trick – and the first by a Sabres rookie in nearly 10 years – in Sunday’s 4-2 win at Winnipeg. You would think the Minnesota Wild will not forget about him for a second when the teams meet here Tuesday night in the finale of the Buffalo Sabres’ three-game road trip.
Reinhart’s second multi-goal game of the season made him the first Sabres rookie to post a hat trick since Jason Pominville did it in 2006. At just over 20 years old, Reinhart became the youngest Buffalo player to turn the trick since John Tucker did it in 1984.
“I’ve played a lot better as the year has gone on,” Reinhart said after practice Monday in XCel Energy Center. “That was a game that shows a couple bounces can go your way and completely turn around your night. The chances have always been there but you get bounces that pay off and it’s a great game.”
Reinhart is now third on the team in goals behind Ryan O’Reilly (17) and Eichel (13), and the Sabres suddenly have two of the league’s top four among rookies in goals and two of the top six in points.
Chicago’s Artemi Panarin leads rookies with 15 goals, while Detroit’s Dylan Larkin has 14. Eichel has 13 while Reinhart is tied with Arizona’s Anthony Duclair at 12. Panarin is the top point man at 39 while Eichel is fourth (27) and Reinhart tied for sixth (19). Counting defenseman Jake McCabe’s three goals, the Sabres are second in the league in goals by their rookies with 28. Only Arizona (29) has more.
Reinhart admitted he’s not feeling any sort of glare like the spotlight Eichel is under.
“No question it’s been that way and obviously he’s earned everything, all the attention he’s got,” Reinhart said. “But I will say it has made it a little easier for me. I went through the summer he went through but he really had another level to it with everything that went on with his draft.”
Reinhart and Eichel have the Sabres on pace to have two 20-goal rookies for the first time since Danny Gare and Peter McNab pulled the trick in 1975.
“When you’re talking about scoring 20+ goals in a season, you’re talking about a nice season for anybody, not just a rookie player,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “He’s quietly gone about it and definitely put himself in the conversation for getting 20, maybe 25 goals.”
Reinhart has been playing with Eichel and Zemgus Girgensons but, oddly enough, didn’t get any of his goals Sunday while playing with his line.
The first one came at 1:37 of the first period as he burst off the bench and took a neat pass from Johan Larsson to beat Jets goaltender Connor Hellebucyk with a quick snapshot.
“That’s a nice one to step into for sure,” Reinhart said. “‘Larry’ made a nice play there and it instantly gets you in the game taking four strides and getting set up like that. That’s a nice start.”
“His shot has been getting better,” said winger Marcus Foligno. “And you saw his first goal. That was just a snipe.”
The second goal, also in the first period, came on a power play as Reinhart’s pass to Jamie McGinn in front of the net deflected home off Winnipeg defenseman Tobias Enstrom. If the pass gets through, McGinn probably has a tap-in.
Reinhart completed the hat trick on an empty-net goal after helping to create a turnover in the Buffalo zone, streaking down the ice and taking a perfect saucer pass from Evander Kane.
Reinhart’s vision and hockey smarts have long been his trademarks. But his shot has dramatically improved this season, with plenty of post-practice work. Bylsma was still mesmerized by Reinhart’s first goal when talking about it Monday.
“A goal scorer’s shot,” Bylsma said. “It’s a catch and release and it’s by the goaltender. I don’t think Sam Reinhart had that in his game when he was drafted and I don’t think he had at at the start of this year. It’s something he’s developed.
“He was a pass-first guy, a distributor of the puck and a hockey-smart player. But right now, you might want to put somebody on him if he’s in the slot.”
Reinhart’s confidence has grown in several areas this year, notably his net-front presence on the power play, his poise with the puck and the shot.
“I’m a lot more confident with it, which really benefits my game,” he said. “It’s another weapon I feel confident I can use in a lot of situations. You continue to want to get it off quick to hopefully catch a goalie off guard.”
“I remember when he came to development camps and things like that and he’s taken full strides,” Foligno said. “We don’t want him to slow down. He’s headed in the right direction to be a heck of a hockey player and a huge part of this team.”