Two years ago, when the kid showed up for his first training camp with the Sabres and failed to impress, it was easy to blame youth and inexperience. Sam Reinhart needed more seasoning at the junior level. His skating would improve. His confidence would soar. Everything would be fine.
Last season, Reinhart quieted critics like me. He’ll never be the NHL’s smoothest skater, but he had enough speed and creativity to be effective. He had good instincts, a willingness to function around the net and allowed his extraordinary hand-eye coordination to maximize productivity.
It all came together for Reinhart, who rode his energy and intellect to 23 goals and 42 points. By all accounts, he had a strong rookie season. His coaches, teammates and fans believed he would build off a good year and continue a natural progression toward becoming a promising young player.
Now I’m back to my initial opinion, that he’s a third-line forward on a good team and nothing more. He hasn’t played with the same intensity, the same jam, this season that he showed while trying to prove he belonged. He looks like a player who became too comfortable after scoring 20-plus goals last season.
So what happened?
The short answer is that Reinhart has been exposed through the first 17 games. He has three goals and seven points this year, putting him on pace for 14 goals and 33 points for a full season. He has one even-strength goal. He’s missing open nets. He’s squeezing his stick. His confidence is shaken. Opposing teams adjusted to him.
Let me be clear: Reinhart isn’t the Sabres’ biggest problem and certainly not the only one this season. You can add Brian Gionta, Johan Larsson, Marcus Foligno and Zemgus Girgensons to a long list of underachievers. The defense has been so poor that it’s difficult to evaluate the goaltending.
Reinhart in particular, though, is an extension of an organization that believed starting at the bottom was the best way to the top. It’s not his fault that the Sabres selected him second overall in 2014 to help save the franchise. He personifies the long and winding road to NHL success, a path littered with twists, turns and potholes.
See, that’s what Buffalo needs to navigate.
The Sabres are waiting for Tim Murray to scoop them up at the side of the road, but they would be wise if they stopped hitchhiking and started walking. Murray isn’t coming to the rescue any time soon. The best thing they can learn from this season is there are no shortcuts to the Promised Land.
Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly could return today, and the Sabres would finish well short of the postseason. People forget that other teams are trying to improve every year, too. Buffalo is on pace for 68 points. Boston, which held the final wild-card spot Friday, was on pace for 96 points.
Do the math.
It’s not happening.
The Sabres are a flawed team that’s nowhere near the playoffs. People inside the organization and beyond want to blame injuries for the 0-4-2 slide, for their inability to score, for their failure in the first month. Injuries mattered because they have a weak roster and lack depth. It was evident when their best parts were removed.
Murray needs to address the Sabres’ shortcomings, but first he must identify them. He could start with the obvious. The Sabres were the lowest-scoring team in the league through 17 games. They had nine goals in their previous eight games going into the matchup Saturday against Pittsburgh.
People would be screaming about the blue line, but they’re too busy complaining about the offense or crying over injuries. The Sabres’ lack of offensive production often starts with sloppy defense and an inability to consistently execute simple passes while exiting their own zone.
Murray was scrambling for a left-handed shot along the blue line when he acquired Dmitry Kulikov and a draft pick for Mark Pysyk and two draft picks in a swap with the Panthers. It made for a nice splash during the NHL draft and injected hope into a desperate fan base, but it didn’t solve anything.
Kulikov missed five games with injuries and hasn’t been effective when healthy. He’s hardly been an upgrade over Pysyk while making $4.33 million, nearly four times what Pysyk is pocketing from Florida. Making matter worse is that Kulikov will become an unrestricted free agent while Pysyk will be restricted.
Murray would have been less desperate for help along the blue line if he wasn’t so infatuated two years ago with Evander Kane. He sent Myers, Drew Stafford, prospects Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux and a first-round pick to Winnipeg for Kane, Zach Bogosian and goalie Jason Kasdorf.
Murray pacified Myers’ critics, but Kane and Bogosian haven’t had the desired impact. Kane had a reputation as a problem child, and trouble followed him to Buffalo. Bogosian has been mediocre when healthy. Myers is a long and mobile defenseman, a former rookie of the year, who has played well in Winnipeg.
The Sabres paid Myers more than $20 million in the first two-plus years of his seven-year, $38.5 million contract before shipping him to the Jets. He’s making $4 million this year, $3.5 million next season and $3 million in 2018-19. Who knows what would have become of Myers under the current coaching staff?
Kane is making $6 million this year and next. He has 20 goals and 36 points in 71 games with Buffalo. Bogosian is making $5.25 million this season and has another three years and $17.5 million remaining on his contract. He has missed at least 17 games with injuries for each of the past five years.
Murray has a better team than the one he inherited, but that should be expected given his job description and their sorry state when he arrived. Any general manager could have made the same moves. We could dissect every transaction and agree that some were better than others. Regardless, his work isn’t overly impressive.
This is what happens when an organization believes the only way to build a winner is by losing. In truth, losing prolongs the agony, creates less room for error during the rebuilding process and leads to more frustration. Murray has made mistakes. They were inevitable for almost anyone.
If the Sabres reach the playoffs someday, it’s not going to be because they hit on Reinhart and Eichel. It will be because Murray made the right decisions with 20-plus other players on his roster, including Reinhart and Eichel, added more talent and created more competition and depth within the organization.
Reinhart is far from their only problem. Neither is Eichel’s ankle. It’s everyone and everything. And it will be that way when they win.