Can Griffin Reinhart upgrade the New York Islanders' defense in 2013?
That is the whole of the question for his bid to make the team. It's not really whether he's ready to play against NHLers (he probably is), and it's not whether he has more to learn (he certainly does). Rather, it's whether he looks good enough and ready enough to take a regular role on the blueline that should grow, rather than regress, as the season wears on.
Fortunately for the Islanders, they also have the infamous nine-game window in which to further evaluate him, if they so choose, after his thus-far-impressive camp. (At the 10 games played mark, the first year of the contract for a player his age fully kicks in, so a team best be sure they intend to keep using him at that point.)
The Islanders' recent history indicates there's not much unusual about Reinhart (as well as fellow WHLer Ryan Pulock) still being in camp so far:
- They used Nino Niederreiter for nine games before returning him in 2010.
- They held Ryan Strome into the first week of the season (without playing him) in 2011.
- They held a junior-age Calvin de Haan until late in camp before returning him to his junior team.
- As a rule, they like to groom key young players in-house rather than farm them out. With the rule preventing 18- and 19-year-olds from being assigned to the AHL, this means keeping them around the NHL when at all possible.
Still, they shouldn't keep Reinhart to be a sixth/seventh defenseman who only gets in the lineup here and there, right? That's the general thinking on this topic around the league.
Here is Oilers coach Dallas Eakins, who had a 15-year career as an AHLer and frequent NHL callup as a player, and who has seen a lot of prospects in that role and as an AHL coach, regarding Edmonton's 2013 pick Darnell Nurse, who the Oilers sent back to juniors Tuesday [bold emphasis mine]:
Eakins didn’t necessarily buy the cliché that kids can’t sit at the NHL level, not if they have junior eligibility left — or at least he said that Tuesday morning.
"I’m not much for time-honoured theories. I just like to make the right call," said Eakins. "You have to be careful with the young players. I don’t think it’s that big a deal to be out of the lineup (in the NHL) every once in a while and have protected minutes, but sitting for long periods or getting a few minutes (a night) doesn’t make sense."
"And there are things going on off the ice. We have to think about where he fits in, can we develop his leadership role better if we send him back to junior? There’s so many things that go into this thought process."
So a mix of on-ice and off-ice things, with the overarching theme being: This is a complicated decision.
Eakins echoes the common view that long periods of sitting out isn't good for a player who could be mowing down all-situation minutes in juniors (to say nothing of the contract slide). He also is one of the believers in other factors in the decision, including leadership opportunities (including the World Junior Championship) among the player's peers.
For Reinhart the smart money is of course on an eventual return to Edmonton of the WHL for one more year. But he does look like a guy who might already excel in protected minutes. If he gets a nine-game trial, and if he shows himself to be so far ahead of the other competitors, or if there is a major injury on the blueline, then just maybe...
It's still a tough scenario to see happening:
- The Islanders already have six NHL "regular" veterans in camp, though one is Matt Carkner who was an occasional scratch last year.
- Add to that six Matt Donovan, who seems destined to take an NHL job and even get into regular top-six use. (Counterpoint: He's still waiver exempt for a little longer...)
- Beyond that, Brian Strait is short on NHL experience but in the team's good graces after last year (including a contract extension), though the training camp experiment of having him with Travis Hamonic ended, or was interrupted, over the past few days.
- Andrew MacDonald is a pending unrestricted free agent, so arguably rental trade bait if the Islanders 1) wanted something via trade and 2) were ready to move on without him. But the Islanders don't tend to rush UFAs out the door, and they've leaned on MacDonald for big minutes.
Basically, as projected this summer, the cards don't line up for Reinhart to be an NHL regular this year. But in this camp he's given them something to think about. And that thinking might extend a little while into the regular season.