Playing in the shadow of the gifted Jack Eichel may be a good thing for Buffalo Sabres winger Sam Reinhart.
Even though both were second-overall draft picks — Reinhart in 2014 behind Florida's Aaron Ekblad and Eichel in 2015 behind Edmonton phenom Connor McDavid — it is Eichel who is drawing most of the attention in the first full NHL season for both players.
"I think Sam's had the benefit of going under the radar a bit," coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday as the Sabres prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens. "There hasn't been a big story about Sam.
"We've seen him really improve his game and come out to score what could be 20 or 23 goals, which would be a pretty darn good season for anybody. It doesn't have the dramatic story or the spotlight, but he's turned into a big part of our team and the scoring on our team."
The 2014 draft didn't have quite the hype of the one last June, which had two potential superstars up for grabs. The Sabres had a brutal season that had all the look of tanking to finish last and get the best shot at the first overall pick, only to see Edmonton win the draft lottery and pick McDavid.
The Sabres immediately said they were just as pleased to get the six-foot-two 200-pound Eichel.
So far, Eichel has 16 goals and 34 points in 50 games for Buffalo and has shown flashes of brilliance. McDavid, who missed most of the season with a collarbone injury, has six goals and 15 points in 14 games — including three points against Columbus on his return to the lineup on Tuesday night.
Reinhart has 12 goals and eight assists in 47 games, playing mainly on a line with team scoring leader Ryan O'Reilly.
Bylsma feels Reinhart has become a key piece of the team's attack, who "surprisingly enough, is our best net-front guy."
Reinhart played nine games for Buffalo last season, picking up one assist, before he was returned to the junior Kootenay Ice. He also won gold and led the world junior championship in scoring on a Canadian team that included a 17-year-old McDavid.
Reinhart doesn't buy into the notion he is doing better because Eichel is taking the heat.
"We're good friends, so to go through the same thing helps," he said.
He feels what helped most is that the Sabres are on the way back up after a few years of spiralling downward.
"It's a different year," he said. "The team's a lot closer.
"The mood going in after a win or a loss is different and better. It's a better atmosphere all around."
The Sabres are still last in the Atlantic Division, but the future looks brighter with a core of young talent that includes Reinhart, Eichel, O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen.
"I think we're taking strides," said veteran defenceman Josh Gorges. "It's something to keep building on and be excited about.
"You need a group that respects each other and plays hard for each other and I think we have that. We're in the process of learning how to be a top tier team."
He feels having Eichel and Reinhart together as rookies is mutually beneficial.
"They can go through these situations together — wins, losses, media, public perception," he said. "They're not on an island.
"They've got someone in the same boat. I think they've helped each other. They're both phenomenal players. It's exciting for both of them."
Reinhart, Gorges and Nicolas Deslauriers were all to return to the lineup Wednesday after missing time with injuries.