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In defense of defensemen: Griffin Reinhart

The former No. 4 overall pick has yet to deliver on expectations, but not all hope is lost

NHL: Preseason-Vegas Golden Knights at Vancouver Canucks
Griffin Reinhart tells Darren Archibald to take a seat.
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

By this point, many of you know the story of Griffin Reinhart.

A former fourth-overall selection by the New York Islanders in the 2012 NHL Draft, has been one of hockey’s most high-profile disappointments over the past few seasons. A standout in juniors with the Edmonton Oil Kings, the 23-year-old has had difficulty adjusting to the pro game and making the best use of his 6-foot-4, 212-pound frame.

The Vegas Golden Knights took a risk in selecting him in the expansion draft, forgoing a big name like Benoit Pouliot or a prospect like Jujhar Khaira in favor of the puzzling young blue liner. Weeks later, pen met paper and Reinhart had a two-year deal.

Reinhart looks like a young Julian Assange (leaks to his game included). He looked particularly rough on the following play about two weeks ago against the Vancouver Canucks:

However, the eye test is mighty misleading, and we as people tend to remember the bad things rather than the good. One lost stick and goal against does not a bad player make.

The question now is, “What have you done for me lately, Griffin?”

Well, in terms of NHL games that actually mattered, Reinhart was the first man up in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals last year after Oscar Klefbom was beset by injury. He made the most of this opportunity too, notching an assist on a Zack Kassian goal despite playing just 13 minutes.

Even more recently there is a case to be made that Reinhart has been among the team’s best, if not the best defensemen so far in the preseason. This is especially true if you look at puck possession metrics:

Graph by Dalton Mack, data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

From the graph, we see that Reinhart has produced the best Corsi-For percentage on the team so far in the preseason, and unlike Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill, Reinhart has a larger sample size over which he has maintained his strong performance. Simply put, no Vegas defenseman this preseason has had a better ratio of shots generated versus shots against while on the ice than Reinhart. Couple that with some less-than-favorable zone deployment, and the young blueliner begins to sparkle.

Reinhart was on a pairing with Shea Theodore in the first two contests and Brad Hunt in the third, two players of varying skill levels, yet Reinhart succeeded on both accounts. Both Reinhart and Theodore acquitted themselves just fine apart from one another, but when Hunt was away from Reinhart, his Corsi-For percentage at 5-on-5 dipped below 40% from 63.6% while Reinhart’s stayed strong.

Of the nine defensemen to have played in at least two preseason games for Vegas, Reinhart is the sole player with positive possession numbers in each contest.

Reinhart may have produced substandard performances during his time in the NHL, but he was not exactly given a great chance to thrive and develop. His most common defensive partners were Brian Strait, Calvin de Haan and Matt Donovan in New York and Jordan Oesterle and Eric Gryba with the Edmonton Oilers. Not exactly Murderers’ Row here, and de Haan is the only one among them who could be considered a real NHL-caliber player.

Most of the 23-year-old’s time has been spent in the AHL over the past several seasons, and he has produced solid results despite not playing with strong teammates. That’s just what happens in Edmonton, when most of the picks are so high that they more or less skip right to the NHL (Taylor Hall, Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Leon Draisaitl). While Reinhart’s 21 points in 54 games from last season may appear low, it is worth pointing out that he led all Bakersfield Condors defenders in even-strength goals and ranked 20th in the league in the stat as well.

This is not to suggest that Reinhart should be a top-four guy or play tough minutes for the Knights, nor is it wise to believe he has a chance to live up to even regular first-rounder status. However, when you look at his performance during the preseason, along with the fact that he is still just 23 years old and was not given great chances to succeed elsewhere, there is no reason that an expansion team should not give him a chance to start.