Reinbacher returns to Swiss league, leaves Canadiens impressed with cerebral play

Martin Jones stopped 33 of 34 shots he faced, and Alex Steeves recorded a pair of helpers to lift the Toronto Maple Leafs over the Montreal Canadiens 3-1.

MONTREAL— There’s just over five minutes left in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs when David Reinbacher makes a play that perfectly exemplifies why he was chosen fifth overall in the 2023 draft and why he presents as a player who, as Montreal Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis put it, appears much older than 18.

Kaiden Guhle got the puck in the middle of the point and, as he prepared to shoot it towards Leafs goaltender Martin Jones, Reinbacher went charging down the right wing. 

The big Austrian picked up the rebound off the boards when Guhle’s shot missed wide and he immediately fired it on net. He caught Jones off-guard and if his shot had been slightly better placed, he might’ve scored. 

But it wasn’t about the shot, nor was it about the skill Reinbacher exhibited in smoothly scooping the puck off the boards and getting it off in one motion. It was about the read to put himself in a better position to seal off the wall in case Guhle’s shot missed wide.

It’s called hockey sense, and this kid has it en masse.

It’s easy to get drawn in by Reinbacher’s size, by the way he manipulates his six-foot-three, 209-pound frame so smoothly, by the way he cuts his skating stride crisply and, frankly, by the way he presents nearly all the skills you expect to see from a defenceman chosen as high as he was by the Canadiens. 

But if you don’t watch carefully, you miss the stuff that really makes it clear he’s going to be an impact player in the NHL down the line.

Reinbacher’s ability to anticipate the play — and act on his anticipation — is at the centre of that stuff.

“I think that’s one of the most undervalued or underrated skills because it’s not showing up on the scoresheet all the time,” said Johnathan Kovacevic — the cerebral Canadiens defenceman who can definitely relate to Reinbacher. 

“It’s subjective,” Kovacevic added, “but I think that’s something that, personally, going through different levels of hockey, it’s the thing that translates the most to the NHL. As you get to the next level everyone can skate fast, can shoot hard, everyone’s physical skills are within a certain range, but if you can think one step ahead of the game, that’s going to work wonders for you.”

That Reinbacher came to Canadiens camp and proved to himself that he can do that against NHL players should push wind into his sails as he departs to Kloten and embarks on his sophomore season in Switzerland’s top professional league.

He’ll continue to grow into his body, continue to develop physically, continue to build on the hard skills needed to meet his massive potential, and he’ll take confidence from showing the Canadiens he already has the most vital tools to one day succeed in this league.

Reinbacher made a strong impression on everyone here, but especially St. Louis.

“His poise really stands out,” the coach said. “He has a poise about him that makes him seem much older. To have such a calm presence like that shows a special level of maturity for a defenceman.”

After Reinbacher exhibited it once again on Saturday to cap his camp, and after he made all those key reads that enabled his game to shine, he said he just wanted to focus now on executing more consistently.

Canadiens trim roster from 68 to 33

But it’s really 30, because counted in that 33 are Carey Price, Chris Wideman and Christian Dvorak, who are all destined for long-term injury reserve. 

With two games remaining in the pre-season, the battle for jobs at every position just got tighter.

Still fighting at right defence: Logan Mailloux, Justin Barron and Gustav Lindstrom. 

As far as we’re concerned, they’re all behind Kovacevic, who was at the heart of a brilliant set play that led to a goal for Kaiden Guhle on Saturday.

Cayden Primeau remains, alongside Samuel Montembeault and Jake Allen and, as we’ve speculated throughout camp, it’s possible he’ll be up with the Canadiens a while longer. 

They don’t want to lose the 24-year-old on waivers and that makes carrying three goaltenders to start the season a distinct possibility.

Up front, Owen Beck, who had a good camp, was sent back to the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, where he should be in a premium role. His linemate in pre-season games, Joshua Roy, was sent back to Laval, where he’ll make what should be an entertaining professional debut after a really impressive showing in this camp.

That leaves Jesse Ylonen and Emil Heineman duking it out with Michael Pezzetta and Joel Armia for a chance to stay with the Canadiens, with Lias Andersson and Philippe Maillet likely bound for waivers ahead of the season.

If we’re to give two of those four the edge, we’d start with Pezzetta. The Canadiens won’t want to lose him on waivers, and they wouldn’t want to take him off the roster and leave Arber Xhekaj as the only player who could handle the rough stuff in a tough Atlantic Division. He makes sense as a 13th forward who rotates in when necessary.

Armia still has a firm hold on a spot, but it might have become a bit more tenuous with the way Heineman played Saturday. 

The big Swede had two shots on net, four attempts, threw four hits and left St. Louis saying after the loss to the Leafs, “He played his best game.”

Heineman will have to build on that to push someone out, as he doesn’t need to pass through waivers to be sent to Laval.

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