Happy Labor Day everyone.
In sadly saying goodbye to summer, hockey fans can find a little joy in knowing that hockey begins this month. Between now and October 13th when the Buffalo Sabres host the Montreal Canadiens in their season opener, there will be plenty of hockey to get fans geared up for the season including the Buffalo Sabres second-annual Prospects Challenge (September 16-19,) the NHL's inaugural World Cup of Hockey Tournament (September 17-October 1,) the opening of training camps and the preseason.
But when in comes to the Sabres, we have a roster to build over the course of the next four weeks and we begin building Buffalo's 2016-17 roster with C, Ryan O'Reilly.
After a major turnover last year things have calmed down a bit. Sure the team was able to add two players who should stake their claim to the upper half of the roster, but Sabres GM Tim Murray, unlike last year, is going into this season with some known quantities. He now has much of his foundation in place (at least at forward) and this year he can build around the new core the Sabres will be moving forward with. And atop that list, at least for this season, is the 25 yr. old O'Reilly.
Murray targeted O'Reilly at the 2015 NHL Draft in Sunrise, Florida and landed him (along with forward (Jamie McGinn) for a rather large package that included a couple of former first-round picks (Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Zadorov,) a top prospect in JT Compher and the 31st pick in the 2015 draft (for last year's piece on O'Reilly click here.)
O'Reilly came to Buffalo with a whole lot of talent and compete but also ended up with a lingering issue from an incident just 10 days after inking a 7-yr./$52M contract extension with the Sabres. The Ontario Provincial Police charged him with "driving a motor vehicle while ability impaired (alcohol) and failing to remain at the scene."
A year later O'Reilly was acquitted.
Between those two July's O'Reilly lead the way for the Sabres. The two-way, all-situations center lead the team in points (60) and assists (39) and was third in goals (21) despite missing 11 games and going through a 24-game goal-drought that included a spell on injured reserve. He lead all Buffalo forwards in average time on ice/game (21:44,) powerplay time on ice/game (3:16) and was second in short-handed time on ice/game (2:05.) In addition his 1,812 faceoffs were fourth most in the league and his 56.5% win-percentage was third amongst players with 1,700 or more faceoffs taken.
There was no bigger all-around piece for Buffalo last season than O'Reilly and that covers every aspect of hockey from games to practice to post-practice as well. From Sabres beat writer Jourdon LaBarber after head coach Dan Bylsma told O'Reilly he had made the NHL All-Star team:
"O'Reilly relished it for a moment, his teammates hugging him and tapping their sticks. Then he put his head down and skated away from center ice. It was time to get back to work.
"Soon, he would be setting up three sticks in a triangular pattern near the net; this would be the device he used for the first of the day's post-practice drills. Those drills have become a staple at Sabres practice, with more and more teammates taking part as the season has worn on."
Rookie forward Sam Reinhart worked with, and was influenced by, O'Reilly from the get-go and the improvement was very noticeable. Reinhart had a really rough go of it in his nine-game NHL debut the previous season and no one really knew where he would end up on the roster. He worked vigilantly post-practice with O'Reilly and became the biggest Sabres surprise last season finishing second on the team with 23 goals and placing third with 42 points.
"I don’t think I would be where I am right now without him," said Reinhart in the LaBarber piece. "I've felt a lot better with my game as I've progressed and he's a big reason why. Just spending those extra, really hours each day just working on the ice afterwards, it can go a long way."
Bylsma concurred, "I don’t know if Sam would’ve improved without that," Bylsma said. "I don’t have to wonder, that’s a big part of Sam's development has been the work, the extra he's put in with Ryan and that's the example that he is. And he's taking more people with him right now. Sam's not the only guy that's been a benefactor of the way Ryan's playing and the way Ryan's leading."
Rookie Jack Eichel made plenty of headlines with some very impressive highlight-reel plays and at 19 yrs. old will garner most of the attention moving forward. But O'Reilly is the heart and soul of the club. The team sewed an 'A' on him last season and with captain Brian Gionta in the last year of his contract, the mantel of leadership will change as soon as this season.
WGR's Paul Hamilton caught up with Eichel at HARBORCENTER after a summer workout and even the superstar said he needs to follow O'Reilly's lead when it comes to practice and preparation. "There are a lot of guys on our team that you can look to for that," he said via the Hamilton piece. "You look at Ryan O’Reilly and how hard he works at practice every day, so it’s something that I definitely want to improve on in year two and be more of a leader every day on the ice.”
The Edmonton dynasty during the 80's had "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky, as the unquestioned superstar but the captaincy was in the hands of "The Captain's Captain," Mark Messier. The Sabres are in a similar situation with Eichel and O'Reilly. Oft-times the captain is the team's best player, but it's not always the case and right now O'Reilly is the unquestioned leader of the team. That may change down the road but as we build the 2016-17 roster, we start with it's top-line center, O'Reilly.
2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster projection:
C, Ryan O'Reilly