Tuesday, May 15, 2018

O'Reilly's World. A brief history and the parallels between Colorado and Buffalo

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-14-2018

Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly has not had a quiet career, per se. It seems to have started in Colorado after the Avalanche named 19 yr. old winger Gabriel Landeskog team captain over him in September, 2012. Although being passed up didn't yield any outright consternation on O'Reilly's part, it was rumored that the slight gnawed at him and ever since, it seemed as if he was skating on borrowed time.

Half that 2012-13 NHL season was lost to an owners lockout and O'Reilly, like many other NHL players, came back from playing overseas ready to play a 48 game schedule, but was without a contract. He remained in a contract dispute until February 28 when Calgary Flames general manager Jay Feaster sent an ill-advised offer sheet O'Reilly's way which he promptly signed. The 2 yr./$10 million deal which was well above what the Avalanche were prepared to pay and it forced them into a "shotgun marriage," as Adrian Dater of the Denver Post put it..

Because of that offer sheet, in two years Colorado would be looking at a qualifying offer for their restricted free agent of at least $6.5 million (his salary in 2013-14) to retain his rights. At the end of that contract, with trade winds swirling, the Avalanche took O'Reilly to arbitration, something uncommon for a team to do, and the two sides settled on a 2yr./$12 million deal. At the end of the deal O'Reilly was slated for unrestricted free agency.

With that in mind the trade winds blew harder and stronger until Buffalo came calling. On June 26, 2015 Sabres general manager Tim Murray made a blockbuster trade for O'Reilly then promptly signed him to a 7yr./$52.5 million contract on July 3. Everybody was happy that summer save for the owners of a Lucan, Ontario Tim Hortons that had their wall smashed in by O'Reilly's truck.

As for his dealings with the Avalanche over the prior few years O'Reilly said during a conference call between the trade and his extension, “I think our negotiations have always been kind of difficult and I really think there’s nothing I would have done differently. My agent has done phenomenal things for me in my career and this is the next step for me here.”

O'Reilly got a fresh start and the opportunity to become a leader on a rebuilding Sabres team.“With Colorado I wasn’t really looked at as much of a leader as I think I have now here with the Sabres,” he said, “I think I’m going to have to be a more vocal guy and be more that off ice leader and on ice as well, but it’s really a challenge.”

A challenge, indeed.

The Sabres had a good first season off of their rebuild but drama set in mid-way through 2016-17 leading to a disappointing season and the firings of Murray and his head coach, Dan Bylsma, who had been with the team only two years. In came new GM Jason Botterill and a rookie head coach in Phil Housley. The 2017-18 season was a disaster as they finished in last place. At locker cleanout O'Reilly had this to say about the season. "Over the course of the year I lost myself a lot, where it was just kind of get through, being OK with just not making a mistake, and that’s not winning hockey at all and it’s crept into all of our games. It’s disappointing, it’s sad.

“I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up and eats the other guys up, too. It’s eating us up, it’s tough.”

A pretty dramatic and forthright way of putting it, no doubt, and one would be hard pressed not to think that other Sabres players felt the same way.

The flack O'Reilly got for the "lost love" quote has been relentless from the fan base and he had the opportunity to clear things up as he sat down with TSN's Darren Dreger in Denmark during the World Championships. Dreger asked O'Reilly, an assistant captain with Team Canada about those remarks and he said, "Everything I said, I was being honest.

"The love of the game is a staple of our game, that's why we're out there," he continued. "Not doing it and getting away from that is a reason why I wasn't successful.

"When I love the game, no matter who I line up against, I'm going to outplay that guy and at times I lost that."

The irony in all of this is that O'Reilly has been known in Buffalo for his post-game statements that rarely deviated from canned answers to questions. Although the 27 yr. old veteran of nine NHL seasons continued with his often-stated theme of himself not being good enough, saying why his play wasn't good enough, while also stating that an acceptance of losing had crept into the locker room, were bold and rather startling admissions.

It seems as if drama had once again crept into O'Reilly's world and it left some in Sabreland wondering whether his locker cleanout statements were a veiled trade request. O'Reilly stated definitively on more than one occasion that he wants to stay in Buffalo and wants to be a part of the solution. But there's the other side as to whether the Sabres see him as a part of the future.

Botterill said at his end of season presser that what they had wasn't working and that there could be changes to the core of his team. We know Jack Eichel isn't going anywhere and resident "badboy" Evander Kane had already been traded at trade deadline which leaves only three players to look at when talking about core changes--forward Sam Reinhart, defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and O'Reilly.

Cases can be made for each of them to be traded or kept but the case for O'Reilly to be traded might be the strongest, with the basis of those beliefs starting with the supply-side of the equation. With top-two centers hard to come by, O'Reilly would be a No. 2 center on a majority of teams in the league and would be a top center on a number of other teams. He's a workhorse as well logging big, all-situations minutes and offers protection to any young center coming into the league.

Those are the reasons Murray traded for him and they're also some of the reasons Botterill would want to keep him.

In saying that, teams in need of a top-two or top-line center would need to ante up in order to land him. It's doubtful that a team would pay as much as Murray paid to land O'Reilly but the cost, dependent upon team-needs, might reach a three-piece offer that includes quality players, picks and/or prospects.

Two teams that come to mind right off the bat are the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes.

But according to Dreger during an appearance on the instigators last Friday, the Sabres would only consider trading him if the pieces were right for Botterill and the team. In talking to O'Reilly about a possible trade, Dreger said he got the sense that "it's highly unlikely" the center will be traded.

Which means he'll be on a Sabres team that may struggle once again leading to negative factors possibly affecting his "love for the game" again.

Right off the bat there's the captaincy issue and just like in Colorado, O'Reilly might be passed up for the 'C'. The Sabres went through years of suffering culminating in a tank-job for Eichel and did not name a captain last season, perhaps because they did not feel he was ready to take over a team that was essentially built around him. By the sounds of Eichel at his locker cleanout, he may be ready to take on the responsibility leaving O'Reilly the bridesmaid once again, just like with the Avalanche.

In addition, Buffalo has an emerging center in Casey Mittelstadt. The 19 yr. old first round pick  (2017, eighth-overall) left college last season and hit the ice in Buffalo for a six-game cup of coffee. In those six games he looked like he belonged in the NHL. How effective he'll be in the near future is another story but Mittelstadt seems to have all the tools of a future top-two center. Unless they move him to wing or down to the third line, something will need to be done with O'Reilly and we're entering into the same situation he went through in Colorado.

When O'Reilly hit the NHL he played two years as a third-line center then worked his way into the top-six. When MacKinnon was drafted it created a log-jam at center. O'Reilly found himself on the wing quite often instead of dropping down to the third line and it was said that he wasn't to happy about the situation. Irony part II:  O'Reilly is playing left wing at the World's as Connor McDavid and Brayden Schenn occupy the top two spots. Oh Canada!

If the Sabres wanted him to play wing this coming season, would he do so? That would present an interesting situation.

O'Reilly has been fairly consistent in his scoring during his career averaging about .65 points/game. In his three seasons in Buffalo he's upped that to .80 p/gm. He's hit the 20-goal mark in all three seasons as well. However, O'Reilly has been known to go into prolonged slumps that he has a difficult time getting out of and of the 180 points he's scored as a Sabre, 69 of them (31+38) have come on the powerplay.

For the number of minutes O'Reilly has played throughout his career 19:25 ATOI (21:19 ATOI with Buffalo,) he's remained pretty durable. He's played in 80 or more regular season games five out of nine years and in three other ones he played 70 or more with the other season being the lockout. With the amount he's played and all the extra hockey he plays for Team Canada on the world stage, one might wonder when all those minutes will start affecting him. O'Reilly's been injured in two of the last three seasons for Buffalo and he still has five years left on his contract.

But the big part that seems to be the focal point of O'Reilly's world is what happened to him on the way to being a big part of the leadership group for the Sabres. The entire team went through a dreadful season and a player like him that wears a letter is looked up to for guidance during hard times. That just didn't happen last season in Buffalo.

"I'm expected to be a leader," said O'Reilly in response to a Dreger question about changing his approach, "and I have to be more vocal, first of all.

"I have to, no matter what I'm doing, be the most competitive guy and that will trickle down through the lineup. That's practice, that's training camp, that's every time we touch the ice, I've got to be more strict and not so much care what people think. I've got to be more honest with myself and the guys and create an environment that's winning."

For his part, Botterill will need to dissect the situation and find out what's best for his team. O'Reilly is a coveted player, a center that teams would be willing to pay a good price for even at $7.5 million per season and especially for a cost-conscious team when $18 million of his total contract has already been paid through two seasons. But what's true for those teams is true for the Buffalo Sabres in that top-two centers are hard to come by. Just ask former GM Darcy Regier.

During locker room cleanout O'Reilly admitted that he just didn't have it in him at times and that the losing culture crept into his game. And during the Dreger interview he said that what he did (or didn't do) trickled down to the rest of the team and that he needs to change that. That's a failure in leadership on his part and Botterill would be hard pressed to make him captain.

Which brings us to the first of a number of questions surrounding him if he remains a Buffalo Sabre, how will he react if Eichel is named captain. And if the Colorado situation is any indication, it won't go too well. The next question might be, would he be willing to move to wing if asked? Again, when it happened with the Avalanche, it didn't go swimmingly. Another issue which isn't brought up is his age and the over 650 regular season games he's played in. When does the wear and tear of those minutes and those games begin to take their toll?

If it sounds like a case to trade O'Reilly now when he has the most value, than so be it. When he's on his game, he's an excellent two-way center who's difficult to play against, but what's transpired in Buffalo the past two seasons really messed with his head and it may have been too much for him to overcome.

The same issues he had in Colorado seem to be cropping up again and when all's said and done, will he have matured enough to handle it?

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