Sam Reinhart has scored six goals in the last three games. ©2021, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres’ Sam Reinhart morphing into star as center

As Sam Reinhart’s career progressed and he stayed put at right wing, the odds of the Buffalo Sabres moving him back to center, his natural position, seemed low.

Reinhart, 25, established himself as a perennial 20-goal scorer as a winger. Even after the Sabres traded No. 2 center Ryan O’Reilly in 2018, creating a huge void in the lineup, they kept Reinhart beside top center Jack Eichel.

But a major injury and trades have forced interim Sabres coach Don Granato to rework his lineup. Eichel hasn’t played since hurting his neck March 7. The Sabres also dealt centers Curtis Lazar and Eric Staal, leaving them woefully thin down the middle.

So Granato shifted Reinhart and Casey Mittelstadt, another natural center who had been playing wing, back to the middle.

Moving Reinhart was the genesis of his torrid, career-best stretch. In 16 games back at center, he has morphed into the Sabres’ top offensive threat, compiling 10 goals, 15 points and a minus-2 rating.

That goal total ranked sixth in the league over that stretch prior to Wednesday’s games. He has scored six times during a three-game goal streak entering tonight’s contest against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden.

He recorded his fourth career hat trick in Friday’s 6-4 win over the Bruins.

“(Playing center has) allowed me, really forced me to move my feet a little bit more,” Reinhart said on a Zoom call following Wednesday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena in Boston. “I think it was an adjustment at the start of my career, having to force myself to do it more moving over to the wing and having to bring that part of it and this part is almost more natural for me for my professional career.

“So it’s been fun for me to kind of go back to that and play that different a little bit.”

Reinhart, the second overall pick in 2014, enjoys the challenge of switching to a position that has more responsibilities during the season.

“It is a different challenge, for sure,” Reinhart said. “There’s no surprise it’s more a demanding position, I think the defensive side of it and (it’s) a different kind of game from a skating standpoint as well. Yeah, I’ve enjoyed that part of it, too.”

Reinhart’s hockey IQ, of course, is a major asset. His ability to quickly process information has helped him adapt on the fly.

“Sam at center, I think he’s been very comfortable,” Granato said. “He’s been great from the coaching side because like I keep saying about talented players, you can give them input, feedback, and they correct fast.”

Granato said playing center has given Reinhart, a terrific net-front presence, extra space to operate. Instead of being wedged against the wall as a winger, he has more room to find pockets.

“He can move east-west, left-right, and he has a creative side to him as well, very deceptive and creative player,” Granato said. “He has more opportunity offensively in that position. I feel we’ve seen that and we’ve been able to take advantage of that. As he’s re-acclimated to that position, he shows signs of continuing to get better and more dangerous.”

Overall, Reinhart has compiled 22 goals, 36 points and a wretched minus-25 rating in 48 outings this season. His 14 road goals are tied for first in the NHL. His 10 power-play goals are tied for third.

The Sabres’ leading scorer has cracked the 20-goal mark five times and four straight seasons. He scored 22 times in 69 games last season and 22 times in 82 contests in 2018-19. He registered a career-high 25 goals in 82 games in 2017-18.

Reinhart signed a one-year, $5.2 million contract before the season and can become a restricted free agent again following this campaign. Given his output, he could earn a lucrative long-term contract.

One thought on “Sabres’ Sam Reinhart morphing into star as center”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *