PITTSBURGH – When general manager Tim Murray told Sam Reinhart, his top prospect, the Buffalo Sabres would be sending him back to junior, the 18-year-old handled the difficult news well.
But a few minutes later, the disappointment of leaving the First Niagara Center to begin his long trip back to the Kootenay Ice overwhelmed Reinhart.
“He was emotional,” Murray said Friday. “I guess he was emotional walking out of the rink.”
Murray understands Reinhart’s reaction. The No. 2 pick in June spent more than two months in Buffalo. He played nine games this season.
“Now, all of a sudden, I tell him he’s not part of the team,” Murray said.
Murray said Reinhart “should be disappointed.”
“I told him that,” Murray said, “‘Be disappointed. You’re allowed to be disappointed.’”
Murray shares Reinhart’s emotion. The two will forever be tied to each other.
“I told him, ‘You’re my first first-round draft pick as a GM,’” Murray said. “Obviously, I was cheering for him. But I can’t let emotion come into play on the decision.”
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Reinhart just isn’t strong enough to play in the NHL yet.
“It’s not hockey sense, it’s not skill,” Murray said. “It’s none of that. For me, it’s strength.”
Sabres coach Ted Nolan said Reinhart will “be fine.”
“We all know his hockey intelligence,” he said. “We all know he’s going to be a big, big player down the road. But sometimes that human development just happens naturally. He’s going to get stronger naturally. He’s going to develop. He’ll go back and pump weights.”
Reinhart struggled during his short stint, compiling zero goals, one assist, three shots, two penalty minutes and a minus-1 rating. The youngster’s contract would’ve activated if he played his 10th game.
Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen. Nolan scratched Reinhart twice and mostly skated him limited minutes on the fourth line. He played a game-low seven minutes, 45 seconds in Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss to Boston. He averaged 10 minutes, 22 seconds of ice time each appearance.
The Sabres couldn’t force Reinhart into the lineup every game.
“I can’t keep him here, say, ‘Look what we did here, our first-round pick played 82 games in his first year eligible,’” Murray said. “It’s craziness to me. It’s about doing what’s right for him and right for the organization.”
For Murray, returning prospects to junior, even elite ones, is just a normal part of development.
“For an 18-year-old player, I don’t see the value of the argument he can sit on the bench here and work out versus going back to junior, no matter what he’s accomplished in junior,” Murray said. “Great players have gone back to junior, 99 percent of the players that have played here have gone back to junior. He’s still going to get something out of it.”
Of course, having dominated the Western Hockey League for two seasons, Reinhart has also outgrown junior. Reinhart had 36 goals and 105 points in 60 games last season and 35 goals and 85 points in 72 contests two years ago.
“He’s not going to learn a whole lot there on the ice, I don’t think,” Murray said. “I know he can go back there and be a 120-point guy in a full season, playing three-quarters speed. But that’s not what we want him to do. We want him to go back there and get stronger.”
Murray said Reinhart must start working toward his goal immediately.
“He’s going to have to find a way two or three times a week to slip out on his own and get to the gym and get stronger,” Murray said.
That vision for Reinhart might not mesh with Kootenay coach Ryan McGill’s.
“He’s going to have to manage his time different,” Murray said about Reinhart. “It might be a different message than his junior coach would like him to send, and I understand that.”
Reinhart will almost certainly spend some away from Kootenay. He could captain Team Canada’s entry at the world junior championship in December.
“It’s a great chance to feel good about his game again, to feel that he’s a world-class player in his age group,” Murray said. “Just because you get cut here at the NHL level at 18, it doesn’t mean you’re not a world-class player in your age group.”
The Sabres play the Penguins tonight.