BROSSARD, Que. — Two words to describe David Reinbacher: Smart and mature.
Off the ice, the fifth-overall pick in the 2023 Draft handles the questions — which come quickly, from all different angles, and from what could be perceived as one of the more intimidating media groups in the NHL if you’re just judging it by its sheer size — smoothly and with an air of confidence that belies his age.
Reinbacher doesn’t sound like an 18-year-old.
He doesn’t play like one, either.
“He makes a lot of great hockey decisions on the ice,” said Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis after pushing the Austrian’s group through its second official practice of training camp. “He’s got high IQ, he’s just getting his reps right now. It’s a pace he probably hasn’t seen quite yet, but I’m very happy so far with what I’ve seen. …
“The decision-making that he has right now is elite for an 18-year-old. It’s a very important skill to be successful in this league, and he’s got it.”
The rest — filling out, defending NHLers and figuring out the systems — will come with time.
The big debate now (and probably less so between members of Canadiens management and their development staff) is how it will. Will Reinbacher be best served in Laval, where he can continue his adaptation to North American ice? Or will it be most beneficial for the kid to return to the big rink in Kloten, where he’ll continue playing a premium role in the Swiss League, which could be seen as fairly close to on par with the American Hockey League?
When asked to weigh in, Reinbacher plays devil’s advocate.
“I would say it’s the same,” he said. “It depends how much you’re playing, who’s around you. Which players are they? What plan you have? I mean, it’s a big difference if you play 10 minutes (in Laval) or probably 25 back home.”
The six-foot-three, 209-pound defenceman then concedes the best option will be the one Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes and executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton present.
He knows the Canadiens have a plan for him, and Gorton hinted at it from the Canadiens’ annual golf tournament, back on Sept. 11.
“I wouldn’t want to say he’s doing this, he’s doing that, but if I was handicapping, I would say more than likely he’s heading back to Europe to play another year,” Gorton said. “But let’s see what he does (first at rookie camp).”
From what we’ve seen, the thing that’s stood out the most, since Reinbacher first stepped on the ice at the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo last week, is how much he has already adapted.
As St. Louis noted, Reinbacher’s poise and decision-making are the attributes that pop, and we can see that they are that much more apparent now that he’s clearly a little more comfortable in this environment and, apparently, a lot more comfortable on the small ice.
Reinbacher said he’s feeling like he can rely more on his instincts now that the experience of the last couple of weeks is under his belt.
“I kinda got into the comfortable zone right now,” Reinbacher said. “I tried to get in there, be myself like I’ve always been and not change myself because I’m a fifth-overall pick. Tried to get into the situation like I was before I got here.”
When Reinbacher was asked if that was a hard thing to do, to not put that pressure on himself to immediately live up to where he was picked by the Canadiens, he responded, “It was for sure not easy.”
“My life turned 360 degrees,” Reinbacher added.
Still, he’s handling it all as well as he is being at the centre of a large media scrum.
As for the adjustment to small ice, that’s also gradually taking shape.
“I would say the orientation on the ice (is an element he feels more comfortable with),” Reinbacher said. “I kinda got used to the small (borders) behind the net and in the corners, and then for sure the puck movement. Every single pass brings you a little bit further; you can’t hold the puck for a couple of seconds, you’ve gotta give it right away to the next guy.”
When asked how he can perhaps be even more effective on the small ice than he already is on the big ice, Reinbacher says his skating can make the difference.
“You’re fast in every zone, (so) if you get some good strides there, and you’re quick out of your zone, you can set up quickly some plays,” he added. “One long pass, you’re in the other zone. Back home, you need probably two or three passes to be in the other zone.”
Reinbacher will keep working at it.
But so far, he’s learning a lot and enjoying the competition that’s unfolding.
Gallagher and Harvey-Pinard cut from the same cloth
And they’ve been paired on a line with Owen Beck so far through camp.
St. Louis had a lot of interesting things to say on Friday, but nothing was more compelling than when a big smile washed over his face when he was asked a question about Rafael Harvey-Pinard and Brendan Gallagher playing together.
You could tell he likes the idea of how exhausting it might be for the opposition to deal with two guys who are as in your face as they are, and we can see where he’s coming from.
So can Harvey-Pinard.
“We can be pretty annoying,” said the 24-year-old, who had 14 goals in 34 games last season.
Gallagher brought up another point about why they can work together as a duo.
“The thing that’s been pretty easy so far is I think we think the game pretty similarly, so when one guy has the puck it’s pretty easy for the other guy to read where to go,” he said, adding things have gone pretty smoothly between them so far.
“It’s great (playing with them),” he said. “They’re pretty similar players, but just opposite hands, so it’s nice having them on my wings. They play hard, they play fast, win puck battles, so we’ve generated a lot of chances.”
No goals yet between them, but you can see some coming.
Gallagher more comfortable with St. Louis’ concepts
Since the coach came in, back in February of 2022, he’s asked Gallagher to strike a better balance between what he’s always done to be successful and what he needs to do in order to continue being successful.
For Gallagher, who’s always been a dogged first forechecker and a fixture in front of the net, that’s meant sometimes relenting and giving way to another player on his line to take up those positions so that he can make plays in other areas of the ice.
“There’s a balance,” Gallagher said, “but it’s trying to remember why you’ve had success and think about how you can continue to have success, and a lot of it is away from the puck. There’s times to go to the net, but there’s also times that the open space is maybe in the slot, or the open space is up high, and it’s just about finding soft areas where you can find the puck on your stick and make different plays.
“I really have felt more and more comfortable with that, and that’s why last year was really frustrating for me being out of the lineup so much because I really was starting to feel good.”
It may not have looked like it, because Gallagher wasn’t filling the net prior to suffering multiple ankle injuries that limited him to just 37 games last season, but St. Louis also felt he was really coming along in the process.
Gallagher knew it was going to take time.
“At first, it was really uncomfortable, if I’m being really honest,” he said. “It was something that was hard, but I have so much respect for Marty I was just going to continue doing it and stick to it for as long as it took until I was really comfortable with it. And last year I really was at the start of the year until I got hurt, which kinda took away from that.”
It’s a new year, and Gallagher’s healthy again and feeling much more at ease with what’s being asked of him.
Byron ready to assume role as development consultant
It’s a natural transition for a player who served as an assistant captain with the Canadiens and has long been a mentor to young players.
Paul Byron’s experience, though, of being a former sixth-round pick who was traded early on out of Buffalo, waived by Calgary, and scratched several times before working his way up to the fourth line and eventually becoming a two-time 20-goal scorer with the Canadiens will be relatable to any player in the organization.
Think of a kid like Jared Davidson, who performed to the height of his abilities with a hat trick in Friday morning’s scrimmage. He was cut from several teams throughout his minor hockey career, snubbed by Team Canada as he rose to prominence, skipped over in two drafts before he was taken 130th overall by the Canadiens in 2022, and he can easily connect to a guy like Byron, who ended up playing more than 500 games in the NHL.
“It’s really cool kinda seeing how he’s worked his way up and the career he’s had,” Davidson said. “Learning from him and how hard he had to work to become the player he was is cool to learn and it’s cool to see.”
Byron can also offer a certain perspective other members of the expansive development staff can’t — of being fresh out of the league and jumping straight into this role.
He complements Rob Ramage and Francis Bouillon because, as he put it, “Frankie and Rob are both defencemen, so I think bringing my forward experience to the table can be very beneficial.”
Byron will be on the ice at Canadiens practice, he’ll be working off the ice with players in Laval and Montreal, and he said he and members of management will take the next few weeks to further define where else he might be of assistance.
Odds and ends
• We probably weren’t alone in how we digested seeing 72 players being invited to the main camp. It seemed a bit much, considering the Canadiens were playing six instead of eight pre-season games. But St. Louis had an interesting comment on why he feels it’s highly beneficial for a team hoping to establish itself in the future as a perennial contender.
“We have a lot of guys in camp, but that’s on purpose,” he said. “I look back at my experience, I went to Ottawa’s camp after college. No contract, was on a tryout, and I didn’t get an exhibition game, so I’d drive home and I’d think I failed. But you come to realize that I didn’t fail, I learned. I learned that I’m not that far off, I learned that I’ve gotta work on X, Y and Z. Actually, I got pulled from it. My experience pulled me to another level.
“Who knows who were going to pull to go to another level? So you’re trying to expose many of our guys to that, see if they can get pulled. You want to split it so everyone has a chance to be around different guys and hopefully, they have conversations with the NHL guys, they can see their movement, they can see what they do and it’s just an experience that is so valuable and I’m glad we’re doing it this way. I know probably some of the veterans will want to know who they’re going to play with and probably want to be with their line. I get it, I’ve been a player. But I think, big picture, this is really good for our group.”
• Talking with Kaiden Guhle, he didn’t want to compare Reinbacher to any specific defencemen he’s seen in the NHL.
When we asked him whom he might compare himself to, he said Nashville’s Ryan McDonagh and Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin.
“Solid, really good on the D side of the puck in their own end, and they generate offence, too,” Guhle said. “They make plays and are five-on-five producers.”
• Beck, on matching up against Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki in Friday’s scrimmage: “He’s kinda the peak of the team right now, so just to be in the same category as him shows me where I need to be and the work that I need to do in order to get there. It was fun playing against him. I’ve spoken to him a little bit. … He was playing against me but giving me a tap on the pads whenever I was doing something good.”