In the short term, the Buffalo Sabres settled things with Sam Reinhart, signing him for one year at $5.2 million. Before anything else, the Sabres avoided going through salary arbitration with Reinhart, who is 24.
Sometimes, you can look at such decisions in a vacuum, and this post will touch on Reinhart alone. But the more interesting picture comes into focus when you zoom out. You see, this isn’t just a “prove it” season for Reinhart, but for many other Sabres. Really, you could argue that the 2020-21 NHL season is a “prove it” campaign for the franchise as a whole.
Sabres sign Sam Reinhart: one year, $5.2 million
First, let’s get into the Reinhart deal.
It’s easy to see why this contract makes sense for the Sabres and Reinhart. From Buffalo’s perspective, they save a little money (some expected Reinhart to sign for more). That could be quite relevant if the financial landscape leans toward a worst-case scenario.
But the Sabres also get the chance to grab more intel on Reinhart before committing to term.
Once Sabres fans get past the idea that they could have drafted Leon Draisaitl at second overall in 2014 instead, it’s clear Reinhart’s been producing. Reinhart scored 22 goals or more in four of his five full NHL seasons. He managed 50 points in just 69 games in 2019-20, which would translate to almost a 60-point season. That would put last season just a touch behind his 2018-19 peak, when Reinhart scored 65 points.
Yet, when you dig deeper, it’s tougher to determine how much of that is based on playing with Jack Eichel vs. Reinhart being a difference-maker to the point of commanding a huge, long-term contract. As John Vogl noted for The Athletic (sub required), Reinhart benefited the most from Eichel elevation.
During the past two seasons, Reinhart has skated with Jack Eichel for 1,875 minutes at even strength. The next center on the list is Evan Rodrigues, who had Reinhart’s services for just 213 minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick.
When you isolate for Reinhart’s individual impact, well … let’s just say you might want to get a look at how Reinhart might fair with, say, Eric Staal instead of Eichel. Consider how average Reinhart’s Hockey Viz isolated impact chart looks:
Mind you, this isn’t to say that Reinhart is “bad.” Instead, it’s a matter of determining how good he is.
So, the Sabres get a chance to evaluate Reinhart some more. Reinhart, meanwhile, could set himself up to make a ton of cash. While he’s eligible to be an RFA again after 2020-21, he’ll only be a year away from UFA status. If the Sabres want to keep him, they’d likely need to pay big.
Reinhart could really rake it in if the Sabres take off in 2020-21, especially if he hits the jackpot with Eichel and Taylor Hall as his linemates. Which is a reasonably nice segue to …
A “prove it” year for many Sabres; still some work to do with RFAs
If you believe that greed can be a big motivator for on-ice results, then the 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres could be a fascinating test subject.
It’s not just Reinhart who could see a big gain or drop in money depending upon how the coming season unfolds. Most obviously, Taylor Hall is banking on a huge year to land the long-term contract he likely craves. Whether that’s with the Sabres, or perhaps a more established contender.
Maybe it just boils down to acknowledging uncertainty, but new GM Kevyn Adams hasn’t shackled the Sabres with too much risky term.
In landing Eric Staal in what looks like a great trade, the Sabres commit to the remaining one year and $3.25M Staal generously accepted from the Wild. (Ouch, hopefully Staal’s not too burned by that.)
Along with Staal, Hall, and now Reinhart, Brandon Montour is only on the Sabres’ books for 2020-21. Now, not every short commitment is ideal. Chances are, the Sabres might save money if they extend Rasmus Dahlin now, rather than after a potentially potent contract year to close out his rookie contract.
Look up and down that Sabres’ roster and you’ll see players who will have a lot to prove next season.
Will Carter Hutton bounce back after noting vision troubles in 2019-20? He’s only signed through 2020-21, and Linus Ullmark still lingers as an RFA. Maybe the Sabres will want to keep Victor Olofsson, another RFA, on the books for longer than one season. Then again, maybe Buffalo needs to see if Olofsson can really replicate that breakout from last season, when he scored 20 goals and 42 points in just 54 games?
The option of a Plan B: trade deadline selling?
From Matt Moulson to Kyle Okposo to Jeff Skinner, the Sabres can scroll down a long list of long-term contracts that came back to burn them. It makes sense that Buffalo wants to tread lightly before handing out more of them.
It also gives the Sabres a chance to pivot if 2020-21 unfortunately looks a lot like other recent, disappointing seasons.
Sure, Taylor Hall’s one-year, $8 million deal features a no-movement clause, but if the Sabres stink, he’ll want to latch onto a contender. The NMC really just gives Hall power to choose where he goes.
You don’t see players like Reinhart traded often, but who knows? Maybe the Sabres could inflate his value, trade him before they really need to pay up, and come out on the better side of a deal?
That’s not overly probable, yet the point is that Adams gives the Sabres options and flexibility by not backing the team into additional corners. He can only do so much about past mistakes, but the most important thing is to learn from them.
And, yes, ideally start winning.