Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Following a strong training camp defenseman Griffin Reinhart and forward Ryan Strome, two blue-chip prospects, are back in the minors for another year. Both reportedly came close to sticking this year, turning heads with strong preseason performances; Strome made the jump from Niagara to Bridgeport this season, while Reinhart even stuck around to sit in the press box for four regular season games before being returned to his Junior club in Edmonton. But the talent pool is just so deep this year, there simply wasn’t room on the big club for everyone. A nice problem to have. But youngsters Matt Donovan and Brock Nelson are still around, and with such other blue chippers as Calvin de Haan, Ryan Pulock and Anders Lee on the horizon, there is reason for optimism tomorrow.
But what about today? What happens when a prospect is ready now – could likely step right in and contribute – but is still deemed to be in need of more seasoning? This is where the intangibles come into play; those aspects of a player that don’t show up on the stats sheet.
Take a guy like Ottawa’s Jason Spezza (who, for purposes of this discussion, maintains tenuous ties to the organization and a firm spot in the “what could have been” file for having been selected with the erstwhile-traded Isles’ 2001 first round pick). Early in his career he was sent down to the American Hockey League for development (and, possibly, an attitude adjustment) and made headlines for his outrage at the perceived injustice. Spezza is a bona fide top-end talent, and he knew it then. He could have pouted, gone home, or demanded a trade. Instead he sucked it up, took the assignment, and let his play force the team to bring him back up, where he has remained a top-line fixture ever since.
On the flipside of that coin is Nino Niederreiter. Also highly drafted and regarded, Nino got a crack at the big leagues fresh off his draft year. A couple of seasons later – arguably a season too late – he was toiling in Bridgeport, piling up goals and trade demands. Ask and ye shall receive; Niederreiter got swapped to the Wild for Cal Clutterbuck and started the season back in the bigs, a top-six forward. A case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease? Maybe. But one has to wonder if it’s better to be a passenger in a Mercedes, or driving a Pinto.
Griffin Reinhart said he would benefit more from practicing with the Isles than another year of playing in the Western Hockey League. He didn’t come right out and say it, but the implication was clear: I am too good to return to Junior; I belong with the big club. And more power to him – confidence in one’s ability is paramount to success in an NHL career. Islander brass disagreed, however, and back to the Oil Kings he went. Now the real test begins: how Reinhart deals with this season will speak volumes, and go a long way toward determining which kind of NHL player he ultimately evolves into.
Me? I hope he’s still in the Benz. Maybe even riding shotgun.