What the Puck: Reinbacher reintroduced to pressures of Montreal

Defenceman hasn’t even played a game in Laval yet and one sports host is already suggesting the big Austrian might be a bust.

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People often say that Montreal is the toughest pressure-cooker of a market for professional hockey players and if you doubt that, just look at what’s happened so far with David Reinbacher.

The 19-year-old Austrian defenceman was picked fifth overall by the Montreal Canadiens at last year’s draft and immediately, reaction from a fair chunk of the Habs fan base was pretty negative. There were some boos from the crowd in Nashville when his name was called. I was at McLean’s Pub downtown shooting a video that day and Canadiens fans were visibly shocked that CH managers Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes went for the European blue-liner. Clearly many fans wanted the team, which has been notably short on scoring stars for decades, to go for flashy Russian winger Matvei Michkov, who was still available at that point.

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This of course is the same intense — or is it stark-raving mad? — fan base that included people who actually booed Juraj Slafkovsky as he entered the Bell Centre for the 2022 draft, the day the CH ended up picking the big Slovakian winger with the team’s No. 1 overall pick. That day there were Canadiens fans wearing Shane Wright jerseys, in homage to the guy who for months had been touted as the likely first pick.

That Slaf story shows just how wrong you can be judging draft picks. After a rough first season that ended in injury, Slafkovsky has become arguably the most exciting story of this Habs season and it now seems clear he is going to be one very good power forward.

The controversy last summer around Reinbacher soon turned ugly, with the young man the target of thousands of hate-filled messages, showcasing the uglier side of 21st-century sports fan culture.

Now he has finally arrived this week in Montreal — OK, Laval — to play some hockey and he’s welcomed to town with yet another controversy, this one coming from highly opinionated TVA Sports host Jean-Charles Lajoie. Reinbacher arrived in Canada Monday and had his first practice with the Laval Rocket on Tuesday morning, with a throng of journalists turning up to get a look at the much-talked-about prospect.

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Meanwhile, many people in town were talking about the Lajoie column that featured the headline — David Reinbacher — Un ‘bust’?

If you read Lajoie’s column right to the end — which frankly most people yelling and shouting on social media did not do — you’d see that he doesn’t actually come right out and call Reinbacher a bust. But he does say he believes the Canadiens made a mistake picking him.

“To sum up, did the Canadiens pick the best player available at the fifth pick overall in 2023? No.” Lajoie writes.

There were no shortage of folks attacking Lajoie because of the column, which is absurd. Lajoie has every right to his opinion and fact is it will take years for us to find out if Gorton and Hughes are right or if the anti-Reinbacher crowd are the smart ones. The reality is that if No. 7 pick Michkov turns into a scoring stud with the Philadelphia Flyers or No. 8 selection Ryan Leonard does the same with the Washington Capitals, and Reinbacher turns out to be a third or fourth defenceman on the Habs’ blue line, then Gorton and Hughes will be judged harshly with reason.

But to quote Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.” The kid’s 19, he has yet to play his first game for the Laval Rocket, and so it’s way too early to know if he’ll become Roman Josi, his idol, or just another garden-variety D-man.

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The good news is that Reinbacher appears to have the personality to deal with the fan and media pressure here. Meeting journalists Tuesday, Reinbacher sounded calm, cool and collected, and maybe most important of all, happy to be here.

“It’s a crazy hockey world in Montreal,” Reinbacher told reporters. “Now I’m finally here and I’m really excited. It’s an exciting time.”

And Slafkovsky said he’d definitely be in touch with the new kid on the block, telling reporters he thinks Reinbacher will be fine, once he adjusts to the smaller ice surface and different style of play in the American Hockey League compared to the Swiss-A League where he played this past season.

“For sure he’ll need to get used to playing on a smaller ice surface,” Slafkovsky told Anthony Martineau from TVA Sports on Tuesday. “He’ll probably have less time and it’s for sure more physical than back in Europe, but I feel like he can definitely make the change. And it’s just a matter of a few games until he gets used to it. He’s a skilled guy and we have great coaches down there too that will try to help him every day. He’s the player already. He just needs to get used to the ice, used to the game style and everything because it’s obviously different than playing in Suisse. I feel there’s more time there and is more skilled, not like the AHL, which is more meatheads trying to take your head off.”

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Reinbacher could do worse than having a few chats with Slafkovsky about adjusting to the pressures of playing in Montreal. That first day in 2022, when some were booing him, Slafkovsky prophetically said: “Hockey is their passion as well as mine. Maybe some of them didn’t like me. But I will do everything that I can (to) play good for this team and they will actually maybe like me one day.”

And guess what? A little less than two years later, the fans don’t just like Slaf, they love him.

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