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Could the Flyers be looking to trade for Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart?

This doesn’t look to be anything more than speculation, but it’s juicy speculation, in any case.

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Buffalo Sabres v Philadelphia Flyers
This could be awkward.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Over the week or so prior to the Flyers trading for Petr Mrazek, rumors had been popping up here and there about the Flyers and the Buffalo Sabres being in trade talks. The primary driver of those rumors was Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, one of the most respected and plugged-in hockey reporters on the planet. Friedman had the following nugget in his weekly 31 Thoughts column over at Sportsnet last week:

11. I can’t pin it down, but a few teams suspected there was some traction between Buffalo and Philadelphia. Their two AHL teams, Lehigh Valley and Rochester, met last Saturday. It sounds like it depends on if the Flyers’ wish to buy, and they woke up Wednesday five points into the playoffs.

Friedman said something similar, albeit less concretely worded, the previous Saturday during Headlines on Sportsnet’s evening broadcast (just after the four-minute mark):

A lot of talk this year about Buffalo, and what they’re going to do. There’s a lot of Buffalo/Philadelphia kind of scouting each other, so people are wondering if there’s a match.

At the time and in context, the move that made the most sense here figured to be one involving a goaltender. Buffalo has two goalies — Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson — who are both free agents this summer, and the situation seemed like one that could logically have provided both teams what they needed: for Philadelphia, a short-term goalie with a functional lower body; for Buffalo, future assets. We discussed both Lehner and Johnson as potential Flyers targets here on Monday, hours before they traded for Mrazek.

Now, obviously, recent events have made the idea of the Flyers trading for Lehner or Johnson rather unlikely. But is it possible that Ron Hextall and first-year Sabres GM Jason Botterill had something else in mind?

Friedman and Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek released their weekly 31 Thoughts podcast on Thursday, and they began the podcast by going through the trade deadline objectives of every team in the league. After quickly burning through the Metropolitan Division (and telling a brief Flyers-related anecdote about teams in the playoff race that reward — or don’t reward — their players by bringing in help), they got to the Atlantic Division.

They had the following to say (beginning just before the podcast’s five-minute mark) about the Buffalo Sabres, with a brief story in the middle taken out for brevity’s sake. The section relevant to our interests here is at the bottom, and we’ve bolded it for emphasis:

MAREK: Buffalo Sabres.

FRIEDMAN: Seller. I’ll say this: Guys who were at that game on Saturday against the Kings said that Jason Botterill was as angry as any GM they’ve seen this year. He’s asked a lot. An awful lot.

MAREK: This is his first trade deadline.

FRIEDMAN: Yup.

MAREK: How much of a signature does he want to put on this?

FRIEDMAN: I don’t think you should ever think like that. I think you should solely look at it like, you know, we’re here to do what’s right. But he’s set a big price on [Evander] Kane and others, and I just don’t know if he’s going to get it.

[...]

MAREK: Well, let me throw this name out at you, then: [Sam] Reinhart.

FRIEDMAN: Well, I had reported, I think a week ago, that Philadelphia and Buffalo were talking. And I could never pin it down, but I think Buffalo was looking at their [defensemen] in the AHL, in [Samuel] Morin and Ranheim — [Travis] Sanheim, excuse me. That’s the kind of guy I could see Ron Hextall looking at. I think the biggest problem is that, they’ve got Casey Middlestadt probably coming, maybe, as soon as next year. I think they want O’Reilly there, and you’re going to have Eichel there. Are you penning Casey Middlestadt in as your third-line center, or do you still need Reinhart?

Alright, so let’s do some questions and answers.

Who is Sam Reinhart?

Reinhart is the second overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft (here in Philadelphia!). He turned 22 this past November. He came up as a natural center, but has spent a lot of time on the wing in Buffalo and plays there now, even with Jack Eichel likely out for the season with a high ankle sprain. After not making the Sabres in his post-draft season, he had a solid rookie season, and took a minor step forward last year, posting 47 points in 79 games. But like most things surrounding the Sabres, 2017-18 has been a bit of a disappointment for Reinhart, whose scoring rates have taken a step back (he’s currently sitting on 13 goals and 17 assists in 60 games).

For those interested in such things, Reinhart has a pretty strong base of underlying play-driving numbers to his name. He’s been a positive possession player relative to his team by at least two percentage points in each of his three NHL seasons. Some of that could be a matter of linemates, but at least this season, both Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly have fared better with Reinhart on their wing than they have without him.

Reinhart is in the final year of his entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

So why would Buffalo be looking to trade him?

Before we begin, let’s qualify everything that’s about to be said by acknowledging that we have no evidence or even reporting suggesting that Buffalo wants to or is even that interested in trading Reinhart. Friedman, in this particular case, seems to be trying to put puzzle pieces together, rather than stating what’s happening with confidence. What will ensue in this piece will largely be speculative.

We got that out of the way? Cool, let’s guess some stuff.

For one, like Marek alludes to, this is Botterill’s first trade deadline in charge of a team. Botterill cut his teeth in Pittsburgh and is probably not used to all of this losing, and may be looking to make a big trade beyond just your standard sell-off of rentals like Lehner, Johnson, or Evander Kane. And while Reinhart was a former second overall pick, Botterill wasn’t in the organization at the time he was drafted. While dealing a fairly recent second overall pick who’s been a reasonably productive NHLer is something that most organizations wouldn’t think to do, he may have the emotional detachment from that situation to make swinging a deal easier.

Then there are the actual roster considerations. As Friedman notes, Buffalo has a bit of a logjam at center, both in the short and long-term. Eichel and O’Reilly remain a strong one-two punch up the middle that should be good for several years to come. And coming up potentially soon is 2017 first-rounder Casey Middlestadt, who has been outstanding as a freshman at the University of Minnesota this year. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman called him the best drafted prospect in the NHL last month, while TSN’s Craig Button had him fifth on a similar list earlier this month.

Essentially, the Sabres are facing a good problem to have, in that they might have “too many” good centers, and that could push Reinhart out of the picture. Now, Reinhart has played fairly well on the wing for Buffalo, and could certainly continue to. But some team out there may see him as a potential future top-6 center and value him as one, even though he’ll never be one in Buffalo, and that gap in evaluation could mean there’s a trade to be had.

There could be a “hockey trade” to be made with Reinhart, and if the Sabres are looking to use a talented young forward in a hockey trade, it’ll be to get a defensemen, because they need some of those. Outside of Rasmus Ristolainen (who may or may not actually be all that good) and Zach Bogosian (who, same), there is very little of positive note going on with the Sabres’ defense.

And that’s where the Flyers come in?

Presumably, yes. Friedman mentions both Morin and Sanheim in his bit, and there’s also Robert Hagg at the NHL level and Phil Myers down with the Phantoms. (No, the Flyers are obviously not trading Shayne Gostisbehere or Ivan Provorov for Sam Reinhart.)

I don’t think Morin is their target. For one, Friedman has brought up the two teams here looking at one another’s AHL teams, and Morin hasn’t actually played for the Phantoms in a month. Plus, if Buffalo is looking to trade a 22-year old who’s already established as a top-9 NHL forward, my guess is that they’re going to want either someone who’s already established themselves as a top-4 defenseman or a defensive prospect with legitimate top-pairing upside. I like Morin, but I don’t believe he qualifies for that mantle at this point.

That would leave one of Sanheim (who Friedman also mentioned in his bit), Hagg, and Myers as the likely potential centerpieces of a Sam Reinhart deal. Each of those three is their own sort of mystery box, and each could make sense in this type of a deal.

Would Hextall actually want to make that kind of a trade?

Tough to say. The fit for Reinhart as a center isn’t perfect here, either; even if we assume that Claude Giroux will remain on the wing for the forseeable future, Sean Couturier seems to have this team’s top-line center position locked down, and you’d think that the Flyers would like to give their own recent second-overall-pick center an extended shot at a top-6 pivot role. The Flyers could like Reinhart’s fit as a third-line center (with due respect to Scott Laughton), or they could move him to the wing like Buffalo’s done.

Still, wherever he fits, he’d certainly upgrade the Flyers’ forward corps, as he would for most teams. The Flyers have a number of exciting young forwards in their lineup or organization (Patrick, Travis Konecny, Oskar Lindblom, Morgan Frost), and Reinhart would be a great addition to that group. The thing is, he’s a good addition to his current team’s forward group, too, and even if they’re testing the market on him, they likely aren’t in a rush to trade him. The cost for a legitimate top-9 forward at 22 years old is not cheap, and that cost (whatever it may be) could be enough for Hextall to stay away.

Whether or not this amounts to anything, though, it does open up a couple of interesting questions. The Flyers do have a number of talented, young defensemen; we can’t completely rule out the possibility that they’d move one of them if they think it’d help the team long-term, can we? Odds are that not all of these guys are going to end up being good NHL players, and if you have a chance to deal from a position of surplus to get someone in an area that you think you can improve, that would make some sense.

From the other angle, you also wonder if this could be a case of a GM trying to pounce when he thinks a player’s value is low. Friedman did specifically mention Sanheim in his piece there, and while I happen to believe he’s already proven he’s an NHL-caliber defenseman and should be with the Flyers now, one could easily look at the fact that he was demoted halfway through his rookie season and think he’s on the outs with the organization. Some GM looking at the situation that way could think he’s found himself an opportunity to get his foot in the door on a high-upside guy (not unlike Sam Reinhart himself).

I think it’s pretty unlikely that Sam Reinhart becomes a Philadelphia Flyer between now and Monday at 3 p.m. But the idea that he could be, and that Hextall could be interested in making him one, gives us some questions to toss around if nothing else.

Can you sum this all up?

Sure.

  • The Flyers and Sabres have apparently been scouting each other and have at least been talking about a deal of some sort. It is at least possible that that deal could feature the Flyers dealing a young defenseman for Buffalo forward Sam Reinhart.
  • Reinhart’s a pretty solid young forward who has stagnated a bit in Buffalo this season but would be a welcome addition to any team. Buffalo has a lot of good young forwards that may be pushing Reinhart out of the team’s long-term core, and they have nothing at all in the way of good young defensemen. The Flyers have those, which is why a deal may be there to be made.
  • This is probably not going to happen, but it’s fun to wonder, isn’t it?

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