Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sam Reinhart Set to Make NHL Debut on Thursday; Grigorenko Sent Down to Amerks

No one said that life is fair...

Despite a very strong training camp and preseason, where he scored one goal, added an assist and scored a sensational shootout goal as well, 20 year old centre Mikhail Grigorenko was sent down to Rochester and will begin the 2014-15 season in the American Hockey League.

That means that the second overall pick in the 2014 draft, 18 year old Sam Reinhart, has made the main roster out of camp and will make his official NHL debut on Thursday night in the season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets at First Niagara Center in Buffalo.

It looks like general manager Tim Murray and coach Ted Nolan want to see how Reinhart fares in games that matter before making their final decision about his ultimate destination for this season. The Sabres can play Reinhart in up to nine NHL contests before the first year of his entry-level deal kicks in but they can ultimately decide to send him back to the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League at any time during the season.

I expect that Nolan will give Reinhart quality minutes and not make the same mistake the previous regime made with the aforementioned Grigorenko, who made the Sabres out of camp the last two years but was given practically no chance to succeed, with limited ice time and below average line mates. Reinhart skated on a line with Cody Hodgson and Brian Gionta today in practice.

I mentioned in my last post that Reinhart struggled in his first preseason game but after watching the next two Sabres preseason games, a 2-0 win over Carolina and a 6-4 loss to Toronto, I definitely could spot the improvement in Reinhart's game, both on the ice and when digging through the possession numbers.

Certainly, the traditional stats for Reinhart didn't look all that rosy after three preseason games:

Three games, no points, a minus one and two shots on goal while playing over 16 minutes a night. Not so great. Lets look at the game logs to see if we can spot any game-over-game improvement:

Nope. The only thing that jumps out at me from those game logs is that Ted Nolan trusted him to take many more faceoffs in the last two games versus his NHL preseason debut.

So, lets finally take a look at some advanced statistics to see if there is something beneath the traditional numbers that we can't see on first glance:

Now that's better! Lets take a good look at all of those numbers and go through them.

Zone Starts look to be pretty consistent, as Nolan has obviously been careful to give Reinhart offensive zone starts as a means of sheltering him somewhat from defensive situations. Through the first three games, a full two-thirds of Reinhart's non-neutral zone starts were in the offensive zone.

His Corsi numbers show significant game-to-game improvement and the game against Toronto (the third line on the bottom) saw his line dominate almost two-thirds of possession.

Before we go further, we should give a bit of context to these numbers, something that is required of all statistics but especially those of the advanced variety.

The first game against Washington was a close affair, with the Caps winning 1-0. Game two saw the Sabres score two second period goals on the way to a 2-0 win over Carolina while game three was a wild, wide open affair as the Maple Leafs won 6-4.

As you can imagine, in games where a team is behind, they will throw "caution to the wind" and start pressing and that usually means that teams coming from behind start dominating the shot clock or at the very least, start throwing more pucks towards goal and that will help contribute to Corsi (possession) and Fenwick (scoring chances) numbers.

So that's why you need to look at Corsi Close and Fenwick Close numbers to give a final overview of a player's contribution when the game is still being played under normal, close conditions. And that's where Reinhart shined in the Carolina and Toronto games.

In the Carolina game, the Hurricanes forced Sabres goaltender Jhonas Enroth into making 17 even strength saves in the final period and in total, they took 25 (!) shots at the Sabres goal, with four of them missing the net and four being blocked. The Sabres went into a defensive shell, changing their gameplan to protect the lead and that's why you want to take those numbers out of the equation when really breaking down a team's ability to possess the puck.

Simply put, the Sabres allowed the Hurricanes to possess the puck in the third period and pulled everyone back to protect that two goal lead, something they ultimately were able to accomplish due to great goaltending from Enroth.

The Toronto game was the complete opposite, as the Sabres got horrifyingly bad goaltending from Michal Neuvirth and were forced to press for the majority of the game. So it was the Sabres dominating the possession numbers while behind but the interesting thing about that game was the fact that even when the game was close, Buffalo dominated in the Corsi and Fenwick numbers. This is because the Maple Leafs are just as bad a possession team as the Sabres are and on this night, Buffalo likely was the better team in all areas but the goalkeeping.

So, getting back to Reinhart, you can easily see that his line's possession numbers (Corsi) and his line's scoring chances (Fenwick) in close game situations both showed dramatic improvement over his preseason debut against Washington. It certainly didn't hurt that his linemates were much improved in those two last games, as he played with Joel Armia and Nicolas Deslauriers against Washington (an AHL prospect in Armia and a converted defenseman in Deslauriers), Deslauriers and Chris Stewart in game two against Carolina and finally, Cody Hodgson and Brian Gionta in the Leafs game, a huge linemate upgrade.

So despite not producing much in the way of scoring in his first three games, it's quite clear to see that Sam Reinhart showed dramatic improvement in both puck possession and scoring chances. You hope to see those chances pay off with goals in the near future and if history is any indication, he's on the right track.

I'm looking forward to following his progress.

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