The trade which brought Griffin Reinhart to the Edmonton Oilers was controversial the moment it was announced. The player is a known quantity in Edmonton and inspires strong feelings thanks to his time with a very successful Oil Kings club. The price paid to acquire him was extreme. Finally, there are a number of complicating factors which make the situation even more difficult.
With most of his first season in the organization now in the rearview mirror it still isn’t clear if Reinhart is a long-term fit.
Those Niggling Details
There’s a line from one of my favourite novels that often comes to mind when I think about Reinhart: “That’s right, let yourself get mired down in facts. Never mind the simple elegance of the theory.”
The theory was simple and straightforward: Edmonton had obvious needs on defence, and adding a nearly NHL-ready prospect in Reinhart would address those needs far more quickly than trying to fix them through the draft.
There are, however, problems that extend well beyond Reinhart’s qualifications as a player.
First, Reinhart is a left-shooting defenceman on an almost entirely left-shooting roster. We all know the list at this point, but suffice to say that the combination of Oscar Klefbom, Andrej Sekera, Darnell Nurse and Brandon Davidson is going to make like hard for Reinhart and the rest of Edmonton’s (again, almost exclusively left-shot) prospects. I imagine the original plan foresaw Sekera moving to the right side and missed the emergence of Davidson, but even so the field was crowded when Reinhart was acquired and it’s more crowded now.
Second, Reinhart carries a massive rookie bonus on his contract as a fourth overall pick, a problem detailed beautifully by Twitter’s @speeds on his blog. Teams are only allowed to exceed the cap by 7.5 percent due to bonuses and the Oilers have so many bonus-laden contracts to young players that had they kept all of them on the roster they would have cleared that threshold, thereby lowering the actual amount they were allowed to spend.
That problem isn’t going away, either. Between Nurse, Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Anton Slepyshev and whoever the Oilers take with their extremely early first-round pick this year Edmonton is going to be loaded with rookie bonuses. This means that instead of Reinhart being a dirt-cheap young player, he’s effectively counting against the cap for the full value of his $3.213 million contract.
Third, Reinhart is another young defenceman on an already extremely young blue line. Nurse, Klefbom and Davidson are all locks (barring trade) for next year’s roster and have between them all of 228 games of NHL experience.
Put it all together and Reinhart is a challenging fit for the Oilers roster in many ways. He’s a natural fit for a position where they’re already stacked, he’s more inexperience on an already inexperienced roster and he carries a hefty cap hit to boot.
That’s before we get to who he is as a player.
Reinhart the Player
Those awkward parts considered above are a small price to pay if the end result is a player who can handle top-four minutes for the next decade. The trouble is that there’s no certainty that Reinhart is that player.
When I looked at big defencemen drafted early over the 10-year span from 2001 to 2011 I found that almost everybody who went on to play top-four minutes in the NHL had established himself as a full-time major-league player by their Draft+4 season:
There was pushback from readers, and a couple of exceptions from earlier drafts—Nick Boynton, Ron Hainsey, Bryan Allen—were pointed out. Let’s look at that trio.
Boynton was originally taken No. 9 overall in 1997, but re-entered the draft and was a first-rounder in 1999. Going from his original draft date he spent two years in junior and two in the minors before becoming a full-time NHL’er in his Draft+5 season.
Allen was drafted fourth overall in 1998. He spent his Draft+1 year in junior and then was hurt for pretty much his whole Draft+2 year. His Draft+3 and Draft+4 seasons saw him get some NHL time but mostly play in the AHL; he ultimately graduated to the NHL full-time in his Draft+5 campaign.
Hainsey went 13th overall in 2000, though under current rules he would have really been eligible in 1999. He didn’t make the jump to the NHL full-time until 2005-06, his Draft+7 season, but has been a pretty good player ever since. He is a cautionary tale to people like me who would proscribe only one route to NHL stardom for a high draft pick.
All three spent at least some time as top-four NHL defencemen, though Hainsey was the only one who was a long-term fit in the role. Even if we add that trio to my initial piece, however, it’s still looks unlikely (given development curve and comparables) that Reinhart is going to be a critical piece in Edmonton. Many players with similar career profiles flamed out entirely; others fall into the Jared Cowen/Keaton Ellerby range as pros.
My personal read is that Reinhart eventually evolves into a No. 4/5 defenceman, using his size and smarts to compensate for somewhat limited mobility and an erratic puck-moving game. If I’m right, that’s a player with real value.
The trouble is that he might have more value to a team that isn’t the Oilers. If we imagine a team with an experienced blue line, with fewer left-shot defenceman, that gets us partway there. If we further imagine that this team doesn’t have a bunch of players with massive entry-level bonuses, suddenly Reinhart looks very attractive as a young, cost-controlled defenceman who could be a long-term fit.
It’s going to be an interesting summer for Reinhart. I can imagine a situation where the Oilers find space for him, perhaps by dumping Fayne’s contract and popping him in on the right side of the third pairing. I can also picture a scenario where Reinhart starts a third year in the minors.
However, the scenario that makes the most sense involves using him as trade bait. Edmonton has multiple needs, Reinhart has value, and the key isn’t so much recouping what was spent last summer as it is making the best decision for the team for next year and all the years after.