It’s yet another season where Jason Botterill and Sabres’ management slowly watch the team’s postseason hopes circle down the drain. The end of the 2019-20 season will mark 9 consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance for the Buffalo Sabres, a feat that only 4 other teams have accomplished throughout the history of the NHL. It’s looking bad in Buffalo, really bad.
The fans’ unrest can be sensed both at the KeyBank Center (for those unfortunate ones who still attend the games) and on social media. Even the national hockey media has been writing articles about Sabres’ fans displeasure with the current state of the team. All eyes are on Buffalo and not for the reasons Sabres fans hoped for.
This great unrest typically causes the local media to create some very hot takes and can also lead to the front office making some rash decisions to “shake things up” or “change the culture.” As I was scrolling through Twitter after Thursday’s dreadful loss to the Red Wings, I noticed one of these hot take in particular: the Sabres should trade Sam Reinhart. So, I thought it would be the perfect time to write an article about just how horribly wrong that take is.
What’s wrong with the Sabres?
Now this question could easily take a whole article, maybe multiple articles to answer. Goaltending could be better and the special teams need a lot of work. However, the major problem facing the Buffalo Sabres is a complete lack of 5v5 offense. In 2019-20, the Sabres are dead last in the league in 5v5 expected goals for per 60 minutes with only 1.98 xGF/60. Since 2013-14, there have been 14 NHL teams to finish a season below 2.00 xGF/60. The Sabres appear on that list 4 times and will join that list for the 5th time if the offense keeps its current pace.
The offense is, quite frankly, horrible and everybody in hockey knew it was horrible heading into this season. The only additions to the Sabres forward corps in the offseason were Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey. You can count Victor Olofsson too after he graduated from the AHL. But, let’s not forget to mention that the team lost one of their best forwards from the 2018-19 season in Jason Pominville. So, it was completely nonsensical to believe that the offseason moves were enough to transform one of the worst offenses in the NHL into a playoff-caliber offense or even just an average offense.
As it turns out, those moves absolutely were not enough and the Sabres find themselves in the same place in the standings as last year. They may have an improved defense, but they have a worse offense. One can certainly sit back and claim that coaching is the major issue, that the players’ effort levels are too low, or that there is some plague of toxic losing culture hanging over the team. One can even clamor for the team to move an extremely talented forward in Sam Reinhart because he gave up on a backcheck against one of the fastest skaters in the NHL after a 1:42-minute shift. But let’s face it, this team is bad because Jason Botterill took over a bad team and has done absolutely nothing to improve the offense. Sure, pieces may have come in and out, but the team is as inept on offense as it was when he took over the general manager reins in 2017.
Underrated 5v5 Offense
We can all agree that Sabres are very bad offensively, especially at 5v5, but one of their few bright spots on offense is Sam Reinhart. Over the past two seasons, Reinhart sits at 31st in the league in 5v5 points with 72 points in 136 games. That is more 5v5 points than players such as Sebastian Aho, Sean Monahan, Kyle Connor, Mathew Barzal and Ryan O’Reilly.
The only Sabre who has more 5v5 points than Reinhart in that time span is Jack Eichel with 77 in 130 games. Jeff Skinner comes in 3rd on the Sabres with 57 5v5 points in 126 games, but then the list starts to get very ugly. Just as an example, Jason Pominville has the 5th most 5v5 points of any forward in a Sabres sweater over the past two seasons. He has not played a NHL game this season. So, yeah, that’s not good at all.
Sam Reinhart plays a very subtle offensive game and he will not wow you with some crazy skating play or toe drag move like Jack Eichel. He is just a smart, talented hockey player who is great at finding the soft spots on the ice. Reinhart has great anticipation which allows him to slip through the defense for some easy points.
I knew from the moment he was drafted that some Sabres fans would never be fully satisfied with his game. He just plays a very calculated game and does not play with reckless abandon. You really have to watch Sam Reinhart’s play away from the puck to truly appreciate his talent. He is always aware of where his opponents and teammates are on the ice. He is always using his quick decision-making to set up himself or his teammates with a scoring opportunity.
I think this goal that Sam Reinhart scored against the Avalanche on Tuesday is a perfect example of how he plays on offense. He enters the corner and uses his stick to disrupt the play and win the puck battle. Reinhart then drifts towards the middle of the circle to provide an outlet for Eichel. Once Eichel moves the puck to McCabe at the point, Reinhart moves towards the front of the net. He has the defenseman beat inside and has open real estate where he manages to tip-in the shot using his great hand-eye coordination.
A Complete Player
Sam Reinhart is not just an impact player on offense, but he is an impact player on the other side of the puck as well. Let’s take a look at some charts: this one is a 5v5 isolated impact chart by Micah Blake McCurdy. These charts isolate a player’s impact on the game from their teammates, competition, coaching decisions, and other factors. It is clear from this chart that Sam Reinhart has a major impact on both sides of the puck at 5v5. He helps create more shots from dangerous areas on offense and helps prevent shots from dangerous areas on defense. Reinhart’s impacts have been pretty consistent since he entered the league full-time in the 2015-16 season.
Every Sabres fan remembers Ryan O’Reilly, the two-way center who Jason Botterill traded away for a mixed bag of nothing during the 2018 offseason. Obviously, O’Reilly plays center which is a more valuable position than wing, but I thought it would be interesting two compare the 5v5 impacts of the two forwards at the same age.
As you can see, both players have had a similar impact on the defensive side of the puck during the same stage of their career. Ryan O’Reilly’s defensive impact has grown throughout his time in St. Louis, so it is still uncertain if Reinhart can continue to grow his defensive game to reach a Selke-level, but he certainly has the skillset to do so. In terms of offensive impact at the same age, Sam Reinhart is the clear winner.
We can also use another advanced statistic to evaluate just how impactful Sam Reinhart is. Evolving-Hockey created a goals above replacement stat that attempts to assign a value to each individual player using their even-strength offense, even-strength defense, powerplay offense, shorthanded defense, as well as penalties taken and drawn. It is essentially a statistic that values every part of the player’s game, so it’s more than just points. In terms of expected goals above replacement this season, Sam Reinhart ranks 29th in the league, right around the likes of Brayden Point, John Carlson, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. That is certainly some pretty impressive company to be in.
The key takeaway from these statistics is that Reinhart drives offense while also being a very strong player in his own end. It is rare to see a player of his age be able to positively impact his team’s play on both sides of the puck like that.
No matter which way you slice it, whether it be analytics or just straight up points, Sam Reinhart is a young, standout forward in the National Hockey League. I don’t like when his name comes up in trade discussions because the good players on the Sabres should not be the scapegoats for this team’s poor play. Take a quick glance at this team’s forward corps and one should quickly be able to realize that this team’s lack of offense falls on the shoulders of one of the league’s worst middle six forward groups.
Obviously, one reason Reinhart should not be traded is because he is a fantastic player. I mean, 70-point, two-way wingers do not really grow on trees. But one also has to consider that any trade involving Reinhart would likely be a lateral move for another young forward. This is not NHL 20, this is real life, and it would make little sense to trade a teammate who Jack Eichel has great chemistry with. The Buffalo Sabres should not be looking to further lower the morale of their captain by trading his primary linemate over the past 5 seasons.
The Sabres need to keep their good players and build around them, not trade them away for cheap depth. Just look at the disaster that was the Ryan O’Reilly trade. Depth is easy to come by, but high-end NHL forwards on affordable contracts are not. They have a plethora of defensemen as well as a good number of mid-tier prospects who can be dealt in a package to address some of the issues on offense. The Sabres do not have a crazy amount of assets, but I do believe they have enough to acquire some top six help without dipping into their core pieces.