Building off a breakthrough: Sam Reinhart

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

At first glance, Sam Reinhart‘s season looks only to be a modest increase from his three previous seasons in the NHL.

His 25 goals was a career-high, surpassing the 23 he scored just his rookie season, and his 50 points were three more than his sophomore campaign.

Not much of a breakthrough, right?

It’s not until you see when Reinhart did most of his damage that you get the sense that, perhaps, he broke out in a big way.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Reinhart struggled to find points in the first half of the season. Up until the clock struck midnight to flip the calendar from 2017 to 2018, Reinhart had posted just 11 points in 38 games.

Given that he had 50 points and there were 44 games left in the season, some quick math shows just how good Reinhart’s second half was. The 22-year-old rattled off 39 in the remaining 44 games of the season playing mostly on the wing with the now-departed Ryan O'Reilly.

What remains to be seen from Reinhart is what he can do if Phil Housley moves him back to center with O’Reilly gone. Jack Eichel occupies the first-line center role and it’s expected that Casey Mittelstadt will figure into that spot on the second line. Patrik Berglund, who came over the O’Reilly deal, can play center on the third line, thus keeping Reinhart in the top-six and potential on the right-wing next to Eichel and opposite of Jeff Skinner.

That’s a juicy proposition for the top line, and Reinhart showed the ability this season to better those around him.

The Athletic’s John Vogl wrote about this subject in June:

Reinhart’s passing skills and hockey IQ make him an intriguing center candidate. Though not the fleetest of foot, he can drive the offense. According to the numbers at NaturalStatTrick.com, Reinhart trailed only Evander Kane and Jason Pominville in shots generated relative to his teammates and ranked fifth in fewest shots allowed. O’Reilly was noticeably better with Reinhart than without him.

And Vogl goes on to point out that experiments at center haven’t necessarily worked out over Reinhart’s first three seasons. 

Reinhart is a solid net-front presence and sitting him in front of goal on the power play can result in good things, an example which you can see below.

Reinhart has still yet to sign a new deal, but that will come with time.

What will be interesting to watch is how his form from the second half of last season translates into the start of the upcoming campaign.

Reinhart showed he can flirt with a point-per-game pace, and if the Sabres and get that, then it means good things for Eichel, Skinner or Mittelstadt, depending on how Housley sorts out his lines, and of course, the Sabres as a whole.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks F Katchouk will be sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced Sunday.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.