It’s safe to assume Ryan O’Reilly is living his best life at the moment, at the very least his best life as an NHL player. He was the best 200-foot player in the NHL last season and the best player over the most important two months of the schedule. That put him right up there with the best players in the world through the entirety of the 2018-19 season. Losing no longer follows him around, nor does the notion that he’s underrated. And the St. Louis Blues don’t win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history without him.
Yes, O’Reilly ticked off a good number of bucket-list items in 2018-19: Prove the disaster in Buffalo wasn’t entirely your fault. Check. Be a beast in the playoffs. Check. Buy someone you’ve never met a new guitar the day before Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in Boston. Check. Open the scoring the next night then drop an F-bomb on national television and follow that with an adorable apology. Check. Fly out of town with one arm around the Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy in the other. Check. Gain validation as one of the top two-way players in the NHL by winning the Selke. Check. Win an ESPY Award and take out your front tooth before giving your acceptance speech. Check.
And about that guitar thing. The night before the biggest game of his life, O’Reilly wasn’t about to hole himself up in his hotel room and overanalyze the next 24 hours. Instead, he headed out to Boylston Street looking for a place to jam. He found it in a store called Guitar Center, where he struck up a conversation with a young Bruins fan by the name of John Corrado. O’Reilly played a little acoustic guitar with Corrado and then invited him to pick out whichever one he wanted in the store. “For me, music and playing guitar is just a way to get away from the game,” O’Reilly said. “I just kind of get lost in it, and if I don’t travel with one, I’ll usually find a store and mess around with it. I met a nice kid who was in school, and he was going to have to trade in one of his electric guitars for an acoustic one, so I thought I’d do a nice thing for a nice kid. That’s pretty much it.”
O’Reilly didn’t make much of the gesture. There’s a good chance nobody would have found out about it had Corrado not posted a photo of the guitar and a copy of the bill on social media. Afterward, Corrado went on his way, carrying a new Seagull S6 acoustic guitar and wearing an ear-to-ear grin, while O’Reilly stayed a little longer to play in the store’s acoustic room in the back. Glenn Otenti works at the store and saw it all go down. As O’Reilly was leaving, Otenti flagged him down to shake his hand and tell him what a wonderful thing he had done. “I was walking around the store for a week saying, ‘I can’t believe I was part of a moment that was that awesome,’ ” Otenti said. “I was saying, ‘All right, cool. I jinxed him. I shook his hand and I jinxed him.’ But he jinxed me, man.”
I think back to when I was young and having my dad instill in me to put your stamp on every little play
– Ryan O’Reilly
As recent as this past January, however, the jinx looked to have remained on O’Reilly, who’d reached the post-season only twice over eight seasons with Colorado and Buffalo and had logged just 13 playoff games. In St. Louis, he had come to a team that was already pretty good, but the Blues were struggling mightily through the first half of what was looking like a miserable season. O’Reilly was supposed to be one of the missing pieces that would elevate the team to contender status, and he even predicted as much at a BioSteel camp in the summer, when he proclaimed, “A Stanley Cup is possible. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely possible.” He couldn’t have known how difficult it would be, but there were the Blues, sitting in last place overall in the NHL despite O’Reilly playing some of the best hockey of his life. After the disaster in Buffalo, he’d hit a new low in St. Louis, and people began to wonder whether he might’ve been part of the problem on all those losing teams for which he played.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong wasn’t one of those people. As the losses piled up, Armstrong contemplated whether to blow up his roster. He evaluated and minutely examined each player on his roster and tried to determine what he’d have to do to get the best out of each one. His time pondering his biggest off-season acquisition was short. “He was someone we didn’t have to worry about,” Armstrong said. “When you’re not having success, and you’re trying to find out areas of improvement or what you need to do with different people to get them at the level you need to be at, he was a just a checkmark and go on to the next guy. We needed more guys who were checkmarks and go on to the next guy. He was the first guy with a checkmark, and that basically lasted all year. It was nice for our organization to have a benchmark of quality play night in and night out we could all sort of move toward.”
The Blues eventually found their game in January. And, riding the play of rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, the outstanding two-way effort of O’Reilly and the contributions of others, they forged one of the most unlikely championship stories in sports history. By the time O’Reilly had scored early in Game 7, he’d opened enough eyes among the Conn Smythe voters to vault to the top of the list. On top of that, 2018-19 gave O’Reilly validation and recognition. The validation came from knowing he’d been doing the right things all along, while the recognition came in the form of the trophies and the appreciation of the impact he has on the game.
O’Reilly, who grew up in a small southwestern Ontario town in a house full of foster children, trains in the off-season like no other player in the NHL. He often does so under the watchful eye of his father, Brian, who might ask him what 7×6÷2+3×9 equals while he’s exercising. If we have the order of operations right, the answer to that question is 48, but we’re not sure. A good number of players in the league wouldn’t get the answer right if you gave them an iPad, but O’Reilly can do it while balancing himself on a ball and trying to keep a tennis ball aloft on the blade of his stick. It’s part of what makes him so good at reading plays, which makes him so effective in every zone.
And it culminated in a season for the ages for him. O’Reilly has always been a player who digs in at both ends of the ice, and he does it without taking penalties. Consider this: O’Reilly has 96 penalty minutes in 733 career games. Nine players in the NHL had at least that many penalty minutes just last season. All told, O’Reilly has skated to the penalty box and felt shame just 46 times during his career (two of his penalties have been double minors) and just six times in his career he’s skated back to his bench feeling guilty about a power-play goal being scored against his team. Of his penalties, 13 have been for tripping and seven for high-sticking. He’s been sent off eight times for hooking, six times for interference, five times for slashing, three times for holding, twice for boarding and once each for roughing and playing with a broken stick. Not one single cross-checking or elbowing penalty in the bunch. For a guy involved in the play as much as O’Reilly is, that’s remarkable. “I think back to when I was young and having my dad instill in me to put your stamp on every little play,” O’Reilly said. “If you don’t have the puck, find a way to make an impact and do the little details. To finally see it pay off in a sense (with the Selke) is very special.”
O’Reilly is 28 and has four seasons remaining on the seven-year, $52.5-million deal he signed with the Sabres in 2015. From now until the end of the contract, he’ll wake up every July 1 a full $5 million richer in signing bonuses. Things are very good, but they could get even better. O’Reilly is playing for a true contender for the first time. He remains one of the league’s top faceoff men. With his fitness level and the way he thinks the game, he could continue to be an effective player for a long time. In winning the Selke, O’Reilly broke through the Patrice Bergeron-Anze Kopitar cartel that had monopolized it the previous five years. Given what O’Reilly has accomplished, he belongs in the conversation with those players and other elite NHLers. “He’s had a storybook year, and the test now is being able to park that and do it again,” Armstrong said. “If he puts together five or six years of play that we’re talking about, that gets you into the category when you retire where people talk about whether you’re Hall of Fame worthy. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on him, but he’s won a Conn Smythe, he’s won a championship. You don’t have to look any further than Guy Carbonneau going into the Hall of Fame this year. He’s going in because he played on multiple championship teams and had an effect on those teams that made them win.
“What we need to do is provide Ryan with a platform each year, by putting good players around him, so he and guys like Pietrangelo and Tarasenko can one day get into the Hall of Fame as St. Louis Blues.”