It’s no secret Sam Reinhart had every intention of remaining with the Buffalo Sabres through the 2014-15 NHL season after the team made him the second-overall selection in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
After nine NHL games, the Sabres had different plans, sending Reinhart back to the Kootenay Ice. Since landing back in Cranbrook, the native of North Vancouver has made the most of his time.
A few weeks ago, he was instrumental in Team Canada’s march to gold at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. Saturday night in Saskatoon, his 10th goal of the season vaulted him past Kootenay Ice alumni Jarret Stoll, establishing Reinhart as the all-time franchise leader in points with 287 through 223 games.
Stoll previously established the mark at 286 points in 245 games.
“Obviously he’s an exceptional player in the National Hockey League. To be able to have my name up there with his is pretty special,” Reinhart said Monday afternoon.
Trailing 2-1 with less than three minutes to play in regulation Saturday against the Saskatoon Blades, Reinhart took a perfect pass in open space from Jaedon Descheneau before finding twine to tie the game 2-2 and establish the new franchise scoring mark.
“The franchise is very proud of the accomplishments of those elite players and they should be recognized for it,” said Kootenay Ice head coach Ryan McGill Monday afternoon prior to practice at Western Financial Place. “We’ve been very fortunate to have really good players come through here.
“To be here and see the maturity and improvement in [Reinhart’s] game since I got here three years ago, I’m not sure I know a word to describe it other than ‘awesome.’”
Though Reinhart’s NHL hopes were temporarily dashed upon being returned to the Kootenay Ice from the Sabres Oct. 31, McGill doesn’t necessarily see it as a bad thing. He lists off a number of potentially discouraging moments in the career of his former captain, Stoll — including a Game 7 Calder Cup loss with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, a Game 7 Stanley Cup final loss with the Edmonton Oilers and playing in the WHL as a 19-year-old — suggesting those experiences help push players towards bigger and better things.
After battling those challenges, Stoll has gone on to be a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings and racked up 375 points through 764 NHL games in what is an on-going 13-year professional career.
“His mind will take him a long ways because of how he thinks the game,” McGill said of Reinhart. “You go through your career and you gain from every experience.”
Like Stoll, Reinhart’s production at the major-junior level has seen a steady uptick in each season he has played.
As a 16-year-old, Reinhart tallied 62 points in 67 games during the 2011-12 campaign. The next season, he boosted his totals to 85 points in 72 games. Last season in his NHL draft year, Reinhart made his mark with 105 points in 60 games. With 33 points through 20 games this season, he continues to prove he is one of the most promising young prospects outside the NHL.
Like Stoll, Reinhart has participated in two World Junior Championships, helping his country to a 5-4 victory over Russia Jan. 5.
“One thing I was looking forward to was getting the opportunity to win a gold medal,” Reinhart said. “To be able to do that on home ice and in the fashion we did it was pretty special to be a part of.”
As an alternate captain, Reinhart was a key cog in Canada’s return to gold medal glory, scoring the game-winning goal in the championship game and totalling five goals and 11 points through the seven-game tournament.
“It’s extremely easy to play with him,” Descheneau said Monday. “He’s always open or he’s always finding you. All around the ice, he creates opportunities for himself from the ‘D’ zone with the way he plays and the way he’s good with his stick.
“He’s an all-around smart player and that goes a long ways.”
For now, Reinhart’s focus is back in Cranbrook with the Kootenay Ice and the pursuit of a Memorial Cup championship. Since his return to the lineup Jan. 9, the Ice have dropped four of five games with the WHL playoff push heating up.
Tuesday night, Reinhart and the Ice host the Vancouver Giants at Western Financial Place. Even though his focus is on getting his team into the WHL dance, it doesn’t mean Reinhart has stopped taking steps towards his NHL aspirations.
“We have some work to do to make the playoffs and set ourselves up nicely for the post-season,” Reinhart said. “We have to get back on track and I think doing the little things well will enable me to be in the National Hockey League as soon as possible again.
“[The Sabres] are always keeping a close eye. So that’s always nice.”
While the Ice cling to the second and final wild-card slot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, what happens from here on out remains to be seen. Regardless, McGill’s perspective of his captain remains.
“He’s a student of the game,” McGill said. “He loves to pick apart the opposition and see where there is weakness.”
If the Kootenay Ice are to push for a second Memorial Cup championship or a fourth WHL title, McGill will need Reinhart to not only be the best player this franchise has ever seen, but the best player the WHL sees this season.
“Clearly, [he] wants to be known as the best player this franchise has ever had,” McGill said. “That, in itself, is great self-motivation.”