Thursday, January 21, 2016

Revisiting the trade that brought Ryan O'Reilly to Buffalo

Reprinted with permission from

"It's over -- finally. Like a blue sky after a terrible storm, we can all exhale as the Colorado Avalanche relieve themselves of young center, and perpetual discontent, Ryan O'Reilly."

--Ryan Murphy, Mile High Hockey, June 26,2015

Such was the reaction of that Avalanche blogger to the trade of O'Reilly. Murphy would continue, "General Manager Joe Sakic tried for years to sign his budding star to a long-term extension, but no agreement could be reached. The Avalanche, from  the moment he was drafted, valued O'Reilly very highly, but never for a dollar amount that would satisfy the 24-year old and his agents. Unable to come to terms, he was shipped off to Buffalo."

At the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, that "blue sky after a terrible storm" Murphy was talking about was actually resonated in Sabreland. After two years of "suffering" with a hockey club that finished in 30th place two years running, the "tortured fans" of Buffalo, as NBCSN's Liam McHugh described them, were about to witness the parting of the clouds. It took all of two minutes and in shone a bright, warm sun on the beleaguered fans.

In four words, the future of the Sabres changed. "Buffalo selects Jack Eichel," succinctly proclaimed Sabres GM, Tim Murray as he announced the selection of their future No. 1 center. Yet, before Sabres fans could finish their sigh of relief and but a moment after the Sabres contingency left the stage with a No. 15 Sabres sweater draped over their prized pick, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman walked up to the podium to announce a trade.

Colorado's Sakic and Buffalo's Murray had pulled off a blockbuster:  The Avalanche shipped center O'Reilly and F, Jamie McGinn to the Sabres for d-prospect Nikita Zadorov, forward Mikhail Grigorenko, forward prospect, JT Compher, and Buffalo's second round pick (No. 31) in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Said Murray of landing O'Reilly that day and why he wanted him, "He's got tremendous hockey sense. I think his hockey sense is off the charts. I think he makes everyone around him better. I love his work-ethic on and off the ice. I love his skill-level. There's nothing I don't like about him.

"The consensus I got when talking with a lot of players who've played with him, who've been around him, is that 'he was the guy.' [For] a second round pick that has achieved individually what he's achieved so far speaks volumes. He changes a lot of things for our organization."

Sure enough, everything Murray saw has been on display from his team-leading 39 points and 17 goals to the production of McGinn (10+11 in 46 games,) who's spent plenty of time on O'Reilly's line, and rookie Sam Reinhart who has made huge strides thus far on O'Reilly's wing. The work-ethic alluded to includes O'Reilly religiously working with Reinhart after practice on everything from faceoffs to the 20 yr old's shot which at 12.9% is second only to O'Reilly's 15.6%.
The trade was a shocker, not completely out of the blue as rumors swirled that the draft was where O'Reilly would be moving, but the size of it and the players involved, as well as the fact that it was announced quickly after the selection of Eichel, sent shockwaves through Sabreland. In one fell swoop Murray had landed his top two centers. For a team that hadn't had a legitimate No. 1 center since 2007 and barely had a legit top-sixes during that time, landing both in one day was a coup of epic proportions.

The price was high, however.

As Buffalo plummeted to the bottom of the standings during the previous two seasons, the entire Sarbes' family was rocked. From the firings of long-time GM Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston to the departure of Pat LaFontaine and the eventual release of Ted Nolan and most of his staff, to the reassignment of Head Scout/AGM, Kevin Devine, very few were spared. There was also the departure of Rochester Americans head coach Chadd Cassidy and most of his staff, the firing of team president Ted Black, who was a part of owner Terry Pegula's inner circle, and other executives as well as many players moved in trades or simply not re-signed.

And there were the fans as well. They sat through two years of woeful hockey only to be divided into two camps during the whole "tank" controversy which really began to get heated right around this time last season as the team was in the midst of what would eventually be an 0-fer January.

Although early returns have the Sabres coming out on top of the O'Reilly deal, it's still too early to tell as the oldest player sent to Colorado was only 21 yrs. old at the time and the Sabres lost a top-notch d-prospect in the deal.

Nikita Zadorov is a big player who plays big and can also skate extremely well.

Zadorov was selected by the Sabres with the 16th pick in the 2013 NHL Draft and is famously known for saying with a Cheshire grin, "I really like to hit." At 6'5" 220 lbs., that's a good thing. But he also had plenty of untapped offensive acumen. The left-handed defenseman also said he "liked to shoot and score" before explaining post-draft that in Russia defenseman were taught to play defense with very little attention paid to offense. But when he came to North America the London Knights offered him the opportunity to showcase his offensive skills as shown by finishing his Knights career with 11 goals and 19 points in 36 games for London.

When Zadorov was moved it left a gaping hole a the future left-side of the top-pairing.

Zadorov was also looked upon as the second of the Sabres "Twin Towers" on defense with right-handed Rasmus Ristolainen on the other side. The 6'3" 205 lb. Ristolainen was drafted eight spots ahead of Zadorov in the draft and had been playing against men in his native Finland for the prior two seasons. While Zadorov had a child-like nature to him and a cat who ate the canary grin on constant display, Ristolainen was of a more serious nature and it would seem as if those two polar opposites would be patrolling the blue line for years to come.

Murray had said time and again that he was in the market for a potential top-pairing d-man who was left-handed. This season they've used veteran Josh Gorges and more recently righty Zach Bogosian in Gorges' absence.

But losing Zadorov left a huge hole for the Sabres to fill and it may take a while.

As for the other pieces, the path of Grigorenko to the NHL was filled with twists and turns and even that began with questions as to where he would be drafted in 2012. The consensus on him was that he was a first-rounder that could go anywhere from third-overall to the late teens. Buffalo picked him with the 12th overall pick.

From there Grigorenko, rightly or not, yo-yoed between three leagues never once finding a developmental home because of the NHL/CHL agreement on AHL eligibility (for quick overview of his tumultuous ride, click here.)

No one can point a finger exclusively at a person or entity as to why Grigorenko has not lived up to his skill-level, and that includes the player himself and his on-ice demeanor, but even being traded to Colorado where his junior coach Patrick Roy was behind the bench has not unleashed his potential. As of now his two goals and 10 assists in 40 games leaves Roy in a tough position as Grigorenko's not playing at a top-nine level yet doesn't have the wherewithal to be in a fourth-line checking role.

Terry Frei of The Denver Post wrote that the situation has gotten a bit "complicated when a center of such promise at times seems disinclined to play with enough fire to take advantage of his unquestioned talent."

Compher is a junior at the University of Michigan and is looked at a gritty forward who plays a 200' game and can really skate. Projections have him in a bottom-six/possible top-nine role at the NHL level.

The 31st pick in the 2015 NHL Draft was traded to the San Jose Sharks for the 39th pick in 2015, a second-round choice in 2016 and a sixth-round selection in 2017. The Sharks selected 6'0" 188 lb. defenseman, Jeremy Roy.

When the two teams meet tonight, at least three of the players involved in the trade will be on the ice--O'Reilly, McGinn and Zadorov. The teams boast plenty of young talent, although Colorado's roster is a little bit older, and both have a very bright future. In the end, the O'Reilly trade may end up being a hockey trade where both sides gave up quality from a position of strength to address a position of weakness.

But for now, Sabres fans are loving the draft-day makeover engineered by Murray and should be thanking Sakic profusely for allowing both O'Reilly and McGinn to be a part of it.

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