Sam Reinhart’s shot is catching up to his hockey IQ

Sam Reinhart scored three goals for his first NHL hat trick and the Buffalo Sabres beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-2 on Sunday to snap a six-game losing streak.

A muffin. A popgun. Wouldn’t puncture wet paper.

Name your anti-superlative, and, at one time, it was likely used to describe the sorry shot of Sam Reinhart. But like so many facets of the 20-year-old’s game, things are starting to come around.

“The shooting is now a weapon for him,” says Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma.

That was not the case when Reinhart attended his first training camp with the Sabres in September of 2014, just a few months after the team drafted him second overall. Reinhart was a major junior standout not because he bulled his way through people or powered pucks to the back of the net, but based on the fact his hockey IQ always had him — at minimum — one stride ahead of the competition.

Upon joining the pro ranks, that changed. And absent any significant physical assets — he’s not overly big, will never blow you away with speed and, yeah, that limp shot — Reinhart struggled to find his place. He spent a largely ceremonial nine games in Buffalo last year before being returned to the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice.

This season, Reinhart became a full-time NHLer and more than halfway through his freshman year, scarcely resembles his overmatched previous self.

“When he was in Kootenay, he was so much smarter than every player in the WHL,” says one NHL scout, who indicated that some in his line of work started wondering if Reinhart had originally been too highly rated. “He could do what he wanted. I think when he turned pro, he expected it to stay that way and it took him (some time) to figure out this league is really good and he had to now raise his level. And he’s raised his level.”

He’s also changed his position from centre to wing, which can be a tough swap for any player, let alone a slighter one who thrives on having a little more time and space to make smart decisions.

With cornerstone pivots Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly in the long-term mix, it appears the switch to the flank is permanent for Reinhart. But the Vancouver native — who returned to the lineup Wednesday after missing Buffalo’s final three contests before the all-star break with an upper-body injury — is adapting. With a strong stretch run, he could push his goal total from 12 to 20 by season’s end.

“From where I hear he was last year coming into training camp, so many aspects of his game have improved and he’s worked to improve,” says Bylsma, who took over the Buffalo bench this season.

Beyond the better shot, Bylsma said Reinhart is harder on pucks and has picked up his pace of his play. And, of course, that first-class feel for the game hasn’t gone anywhere.

Reinhart’s brain is starting to recalibrate to the speed at which things happen around him now, evidenced by the fact that, before getting hurt, he was the Sabres’ top forward in terms of Corsi For percentage, despite beginning more than half his shifts in the defensive zone. It’s all led to the type of gains Bylsma marvels at.

“You don’t see that very often from players at this level,” he says, “that much improvement in their game.”

Meaning Reinhart has a shot — literally and figuratively — to become everything the Sabres hoped he would.