VANCOUVER — Sam Reinhart needed no introduction to the local media. Reinhart barely had time to make his way through the crowd Friday in Rogers Arena when a Vancouver reporter asked if a mid-January trip to his hometown was a welcome respite from the harsh winter weather in Western New York.
"It actually hasn't been too bad in Buffalo, but anytime you come out West you have to take advantage of it," the Buffalo Sabres winger said ahead of a game against the Vancouver Canucks. This was not his first NHL trip home.
Reinhart played his first game here on Dec. 7, 2015, when he scored in the Sabres' 5-2 loss. But the 23-year-old is amid a career year and has helped resurrect a franchise that won only 25 games one year ago. Entering the game, Reinhart had 10 goals and a career-high 33 assists in 47 games.
In these parts, Reinhart is no longer known only as the top prospect from North Vancouver whose father played for two seasons for the Canucks. Now, he's an established NHL player.
"I think both for myself and the team there’s a lot more positives, especially this year, and a lot of growth that has happened," Reinhart said. "That being said, it goes by in a hurry so you have to take a minute and enjoy the moment."
Reinhart wants to score more goals. Entering Friday, he was on pace for 17 this year, which would be eight fewer than last season and six less than his output in 2015-16. However, Reinhart was also on pace for 75 points — 25 more than his previous high, which was set during his 82-game season in 2017-18.
Additionally, he had 13 multi-point games while playing right wing on one of the best forward lines in the NHL. The Sabres were 28-4-6 in Reinhart's career when he had at least two points in a game. Though his scoring is down, his playmaking in the offensive zone has helped his linemates flourish.
Jeff Skinner was tied for second in the NHL with 30 goals, while Jack Eichel had 16. Reinhart has made an impact around the net since debuting with the Sabres in October, 2014. Skinner was aware of that during his time in Carolina, but he achieved a greater appreciation for Reinhart's play when the two began skating alongside Eichel this season.
"Obviously getting to see him as an opposing player you get to see little snapshots of guys, but when you get to be around them on a more consistent basis you start to appreciate how smart he is, how good of a passer he is, how good his vision is and his awareness of where everyone is on the ice at all times," Skinner said. "That’s nice for a linemate because he always seems to know where you are."
Reinhart's family is well-known in his hometown. His father, Paul, played the final two of his 11 NHL seasons with the Canucks. Sam's oldest brother, Max, was a third-round draft pick of Calgary in 2010, and his other brother, Griffin, was drafted fourth overall by the New York Islanders in 2012.
Following a 21-win season, the Sabres drafted Sam second overall in 2014. He is in his fourth full season and has steadily improved as a two-way player. Buffalo winger Kyle Okposo noticed a change with Reinhart a year ago, but what impressed Okposo the most was how Reinhart reacted following a slow start to last season — including only three goals in the team's first 20 games.
"He’s a really good pro," Okposo said. "I noticed it last year. Even at the beginning of the year last year he came in with a little different mentality, a different mindset. He was really taking care of himself. … It really paid off and you’ve seen the progress he’s made in the last year and a half. It’s definitely something he worked hard for."
Reinhart has yet to miss a game this season and was averaging a career-high 18 minutes, 29 seconds per game entering Friday. He had been on the ice for 36 5-on-5 Sabres goals — only three off his previous career high — and was on pace to set another new career high in takeaways.
On the morning of his 48th game, Reinhart said it was the best he had felt physically in his career.
His emergence comes at an opportune time. In September, Reinhart, a restricted free agent at the time, briefly left the Sabres and returned to Vancouver. He flew back to Buffalo with a new two-year contract and has since proven to be a building block for General Manager Jason Botterill.
"He does a terrific job of protecting the puck, especially down low," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "He’s very slippery. But when he gets his eyes up he’s able to make a play in tight areas. He’s been really good for us as far as a net-front presence. He hasn’t gotten rewarded as much, but he has to continue to go there. Things are going to happen for him."