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Sabres’ best bet with Reinhart would be to lock him up long term

The Sabres and Sam Reinhart haven’t been able to iron out a new contract for the 22-year-old restricted free agent, and while a short-term deal might be the answer if push comes to shove, a long-term deal would be the best long-term bet for Buffalo.

The off-season is winding down and the days are dwindling before the beginning of training camps throughout the league, and though he’s been one of the more active GMs in the league, Buffalo Sabres architect Jason Botterill still has some work to do. Most notably, he has to find a way to hammer out a deal with Sam Reinhart, who remains unsigned with the clock ticking on the summer.

The 22-year-old restricted free agent saw his three-year entry-level deal expire at the culmination of the past season, and while he doesn’t have any bargaining power beyond the threat of a potential holdout — and there’s nothing to indicate that’s the route Reinhart is going to take — getting Reinhart locked in is proving more difficult than once expected.

In fact, early in the 2017-18 campaign, Reinhart’s contract situation appeared to be an open-and-shut case. Starting the season of a pivot and later shifting to the wing, Reinhart stumbled out of the gate, producing a mere seven goals and 13 points through his first 44 games, an offensive downturn from his previous season’s 17-goal, 47-point scoring rate that sparked trade chatter and found the 22-year-old quickly falling out of favor. So, if asked at the time what Reinhart’s future held, chances are most would have been quick to respond a show-me type bridge deal that gave him the opportunity to prove he was worth a greater investment.

But Reinhart complicated matters for Buffalo over the back half of the season, not that the Sabres are about to complain. Beginning with Buffalo’s Jan. 18 contest against the New York Rangers, an outing in which he chipped in two assists, Reinhart went on an absolute tear. Over the final 38 games of the campaign, he chipped in 18 goals and 37 points, totals that ranked 12th and 23rd in the NHL over the near three-month span. By season’s end, Reinhart had set a pair of career-bests. His 25 goals eclipsed his previous high of 23, set during his rookie campaign, and his 50 points saw put him three clear of the 47-point high he had set one season prior.

Reinhart’s offensive brilliance over the back half of the campaign was seemingly the long-awaited breakout the Sabres had hoped for from the 2014 second-overall pick, a sign of greater offensive ability than he had shown during his previous two campaigns. Of course, that Reinhart pieced that together as he inched towards restricted free agency also meant that what was once a seemingly easy-to-navigate negotiation was undoubtedly set to become that much more difficult. And that it’s now mid-August and Reinhart remains without a pact is proof positive of just that.

One aspect of the deal that could be holding up matters is that Reinhart, a player who may have once been perceived as a safe bet for a bridge contract, now seems a better bet on a long-term pact. While a short-term deal would have made sense prior, the benefits of a long-term deal, particularly with Reinhart seemingly unlocking his offense, are much greater. In saying that, however, the financials of such a deal are going to be difficult to iron out.

There are a few reasons for that. The first is that the back half of Reinhart’s campaign makes him a player that would command in the $6-million range on a long-term pact. That’s more than a fair rate of pay for a player with 65 goals and 140 points over his first three full seasons in the NHL, and that’s especially true for a player who had a half-season in which he scored at a near 40-goal pace. That said, the front half of Reinhart’s season could see that value take a hit. Are the Sabres going to want to pay Reinhart the same amount as what Dylan Larkin received across his recent five-year pact with the Detroit Red Wings?

And speaking of Larkin, the comparable aspect of a long-term deal also becomes a tricky thing. Larkin has shown a higher ceiling over his time in the league — he posted a 63-point season on an offensively starved team last season — but Reinhart has been more consistent and a slightly more productive goal scorer. That said, the six-year pact handed to Arizona Coyotes center Christian Dvorak that carries a $4.45-million cap hit could have the Sabres feeling as though there’s a middle-ground to be had. But Reinhart’s superior production assuredly means he’s worth more on a deal of similar length.

The cap in general has to come into the conversation, too. Though there’s a considerable amount of money coming off the books this summer, Buffalo does have to think about the cost of re-signing pending RFAs Nathan Beaulieu, Jake McCabe, Johan Larsson and unrestricted free agent-to-be Jeff Skinner next summer. If Reinhart signs at $6-million per season, current projections have the Sabres in the $23-million range. A new deal for Skinner eats a healthy chunk of that cap space, and re-signing the crop of RFAs won’t necessarily come cheap.

But even still, there are more reasons than not to go long-term with Reinhart and have faith that it can be a worthwhile and valuable signing for years to come. Even if he doesn’t fit down the middle, as it was once believed he would, his performance alongside O’Reilly was evidence Reinhart can be a highly productive winger. And with Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt projected to be a future one-two punch at center, as well Larsson and Patrik Berglund as options for the third- and fourth-line, the need to force Reinhart into the middle of the ice isn’t as great as it was in the past.

If something long-term can’t be ironed out, the Sabres can always find a short-term fit and go back to the table with Reinhart down the line. But if Buffalo wants to sign a high-value contract that can benefit the organization long-term, it appears the best bet is to bank on Reinhart continuing to grow off of his second-half performance and lock him up well into the future.