Rookie Reinhart learning the ropes
Pondering Max Reinhart's roller-coaster rookie season, Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward took a crack at encapsulating the challenges that first-year professional hockey players face.
"It's all about maturity, it's all about experience, it's all about failure, it's all about success," he mused.
"You've got to be able to handle this league as a man, because it's a man's league, and oftentimes we have boys playing it. That's it in a nutshell."
In other words, it ain't easy to make the transition to the pro game, even for a prospect as well-regarded as Reinhart, a third-round draft choice by the Calgary Flames in 2010.
The North Vancouver-born centre got off to a slow start to the 2012-13 campaign, mustering just two assists in his first 19 games. Part of it was a function of ice time – with the NHL lockout in full swing, the Heat had a surplus of depth and experience in the forward corps. Reinhart was a fixture on the fourth line in the early going, though he did see time on the power play.
The freshman turned the corner offensively as the calendar flipped to 2013 – he registered 10 points (one goal, nine assists) during a 14-game stretch in January and February.
It's no coincidence that the outburst dovetailed with the end of the lockout, which saw a handful of Heat players recalled by the Flames, thus pushing Reinhart up the depth chart in Abbotsford.
But while the hot streak provided a much-needed boost to the 21-year-old's scoring totals (he's now registered six goals and 12 assists in 60 games), the number in his stat line that jumps out is the plus/minus. His -24 rating is second-worst in the AHL, just ahead of Adirondack Phantoms blueliner Brandon Manning (-27).
"I knew there were going to be ups and downs, and that's been pretty much the best way to describe my season so far," Reinhart reflected. "I haven't had much consistency, and that's kind of what I've been looking for.
"I think it's just a different level and a different game than junior. Obviously coming out of junior, I was playing lots of minutes and had a lot of freedom to do different things. Here, I've been trying to find a role on this team, and not only that, also trying to adjust to playing against bigger, stronger, faster players."
Reinhart's uneven start to his first full pro season may have come as a surprise to some observers, given the instant success the youngster had after joining the Heat at the tail end of last season after the conclusion of his campaign with the WHL's Kootenay Ice. He scored two goals in the Heat's regular season finale, then posted a goal and an assist in four playoff dates while drawing rave reviews for his precocious intelligence and feel for the game.
But Ward doesn't put much too stock in those late-season AHL auditions – he believes they're not true barometers of players' readiness, based on the fact their confidence is sky-high from their recently completed junior or college season, and they're riding a wave of adrenaline for their pro debut.
"It's like marrying a woman," he said with a chuckle. "You say, 'You know what, my wife's really hot.' But then you look at her mom when you figure it out later, and you say, 'That's what she's going to look like?'
"This is the same thing. Just because a player had their little song and dance out of college or major junior, that's not what they're going to be. You've got to wait until stuff settles.
"I anticipated this with Max," Ward added. "We have to be patient and let this young man mature and grow up. Good things are happening, even though the numbers don't show it.
"He's getting great experience right now, he's got good teammates, and he's getting a lot of things covered playing on the power play and penalty kill. It's just a matter of patience and an understanding that things take time at this level."
Reinhart said he's grown in confidence as the season has worn on.
"I kind of struggled at the start of the year, not really knowing what I could do and what I couldn't do (on the ice)," he said. "But I've gotten more comfortable out there.
"I've had a lot of games where I've had my chances, and they haven't been going in. I'm not really used to that, and it's been frustrating. But the last couple months have been pretty positive, getting a couple of points and starting to feel a little more free out there."
Reinhart boasts some impressive hockey bloodlines – his father Paul played 11 NHL seasons with the Atlanta/Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks, and younger brothers Griffin and Sam are considered elite prospects.
Griffin, 19, was the No. 4 overall pick in the NHL draft last spring by the New York Islanders, and currently plays with the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings. Sam, 17, was a teammate of Max's in Kootenay last year, and he's a potential first-round pick in 2014.
Max has relished playing in Abbotsford, as he's able to drive home to North Van for home-cooked meals on a regular basis. He and his brothers also connect regularly, sharing the ups and downs of the hockey life.
"We talk a lot, give each other updates on what's going on," he said. "Our lives have been really similar so far, and it's nice to be able to share it with somebody."