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David Reinbacher and finding eliteness beyond the scoresheet

“David … Reinbacher”

If draft selections were determined by popular fan vote, those would not have been the two words spoken on Wednesday night by Carey Price. For months, the debate within the Montreal Canadiens fanbase had centred upon the risks and rewards of Matvei Michkov, with Zach Benson and Ryan Leonard offered as the main alternatives. These were potentially elite talents for a team that lacked them — and had lacked them for decades. Reinbacher was there at the edges of the conversation, but he was viewed as a safe pick — a pick made based on a high floor instead of a high ceiling. So while the lanky Austrian strode across the stage, the internet largely responded with wailing and a gnashing of teeth.

One person, however, was thrilled. Thibaud Chatel is an analysis for NL Ice Data, a website dedicated to tracking and analyzing the Swiss National League (NL). Whereas most public-facing scouting agencies or individuals ranked Reinbacher either in the bottom-half of the top ten or around the late teens/high twenties, NL Ice Data’s draft model put him as the sixth-best player and best defenceman available. Taking things one step further, their prospects model — which looks at every player aged 16 to 22 and projects their potential career until age 30 — rated Reinbacher second behind only Connor Bedard, with a 52% chance of becoming a top 10% player during the next decade. In Chatel’s eyes, Reinbacher isn’t just a safe selection in the present, but has a ceiling as elite as almost anyone else in the class of 2023.

More than cheese and chocolate

Speaking to Eyes On The Prize’s Patrik Bexell and Matt Drake on the Habsent Minded podcast, Chatel addressed this disconnect between NL Ice Data’s assessment and immediate public perception. Chatel and Bexell both opined that playing in the Swiss league has hindered Reinbacher’s stock, especially in the eyes of North American fans who may not understand the context of the Austrian defender’s accomplishments.

While Switzerland has firmly cemented its place in the international hockey pantheon, its domestic league still pales in visibility compared to those operated by traditional powers such as Finland, Sweden, and Russia. Furthermore, relegation in the Swiss National League carries heavy financial disincentives, pushing teams to constantly maintain a “win-now” mentality and eschewing prospects in favour of domestic and international free agents. “[NL teams] don’t mess around — [they don’t usually] play 18-year-old guys more than a few minutes per night,” says Chatel. “[As a result], the best Swiss prospects actually go to Canadian Junior leagues [for playing time].”

Despite this, Reinbacher logged an average of 18.94 minutes per night for EHC Kloten, by far the highest ice time for U20 NL players at nearly six minutes more than second-place Simon Knak. Moreover, Reinbacher earned this level of trust and commitment from a team that — while they didn’t have championship aspirations — still needed to win. After over 50 consecutive years at the top level of Swiss hockey, EHC Kloten were relegated in 2017-18, spending four seasons in the hinterland before finally rejoining the National League this season. Reinbacher was the second-most-used defenceman on a team desperately fighting to — and succeeding in — staying in the top flight.

He did all of this in a very good league. Chatel believes that the NL is the fifth-best league in the world, ahead of Liiga and behind only the NHL, KHL, AHL, and SHL. Bexell concurs with the sentiment, but places the NL fourth — ahead of the KHL after the exodus of foreign talent following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The Swiss NL is a very fast league — it’s not defensive-minded like Liiga can be,” says Chatel. “Instead, it’s more of a mix between Swedish and North American [styles]. You have many European coaches and teams that are focusing on things like puck control, transitions, neutral-zone play, and generally encouraging players to use their energy in a smart way.”

Chatel thinks that this was the perfect environment for Reinbacher’s development, compared to the more frenetic high-tempo play characteristic of Canadian Major Junior leagues: “This year, [Reinbacher] played a top-pairing role on a bad team that was constantly under pressure, playing against players that could potentially compete for [depth-level] NHL spots — and he was very good at it.”

Mature for his age, but still with room to grow

What then, were the precise attributes being forged in this cauldron that so attracted the Habs? Chatel thinks that NHL translatability was a big factor. “Reinbacher was very good in a puck-retrieval role, a role where you had to evade or box out the offensive actions of the other team in order to facilitate a clean and controlled zone breakout. He has the vision, he has the stickhandling, he can protect the puck both with his body and his stick, so he’s very good at attacking the centre of the ice, knowing when to hold the puck and pull up [in transition], and picking his spots in the offensive zone [to generate offence or keep plays alive].”

Reinbacher won’t be a stereotypical swashbuckling blue-line attacker though. “He won’t be Cale Makar or Adam Fox,” Chatel admits, at the same time noting that the Canadiens already have Lane Hutson to fit that archetype. “Reinbacher is the guy that backs those guys up. He’s going to [tilt the ice] at five-on-five for 25 minutes a night, kill penalties, and play the second wave on the power play. He’s not the flashiest player, but he’s the most mature player that the Canadiens could have hoped for.”

At the same time, Chatel is adamant that Reinbacher has not reached his full offensive potential. “Next year will be very interesting, to see how Kloten’s defence corps will change and what new roles and responsibilities will open up for Reinbacher. So far in his career, he’s always adapted very well to pressure situations. He’s gone from a third-pair defenceman in the [second-tier] Swiss League to a top-pair guy in the National League in just one year.”

A different form of “elite”

Herein lies the cognitive dissonance. Is it possible to be elite — in an unqualified manner, as opposed to being an elite shutdown player or elite defender — without top-tier offensive talent? Chatel thinks that their statistical modelling can help answer that question. NL Ice Data’s prospect model looks at players between the ages of 16 and 22, and takes into consideration their rolling performance over three seasons, their age, and their league. It then takes that information and identifies contextual precedents to serve as comparables. For these, Chatel highlights the importance of looking beyond players who have made the NHL.

“If you limit yourself to NHL players, it’s a really small sample size for players who went from Swiss domestic leagues to the NHL. So we look at players throughout their careers, across different leagues, and we translate all of the different leagues into NHL equivalency coefficient data.”

The model therefore incorporated Reinbacher’s age 18 draft season with EHC Kloten in the National League, his age 17 draft-minus-one season with Kloten in the second-tier Swiss League, and his age 16 draft-minus-two season with Kloten’s under-17 team. With this data, it projects a 52% chance for Reinbacher to become an NHL star player — defined as within the top 10% of the league — within a decade of his selection.

“I hate the word safe,” Chatel says, “but there is safety in where his development currently is. If you compare him to David Jiricek or Seider at age 18, Reinbacher is a year ahead of those guys [according to the model].” He also compared favourably to Roman Josi’s age 18 season, and it has to be noted that Josi, while more offensive-minded stylistically, was not a point-producing dynamo at this age either.

Straight to the top of the class

Where does Reinbacher fit in among an already crowded pipeline of defencemen in the Canadiens’ system? Drafted ostensibly to fill a gap on the right side, Reinbacher transcends mere positional fit, according to Chatel.

“He is probably the best defenceman within the Montreal organization.”

The prospect model currently places him level with Lane Hutson, but Chatel notes that it took Hutson an extra year and a record-breaking NCAA season to achieve this parity.

“Montreal is getting a guy who is going to have a huge overall impact on a game because of all the little things that he can do very well. If [he and Hutson] can develop into what they’re projected to become, it’s going to be a huge win for the Canadiens.”

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