Clearly, Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues have established themselves as vital contributors on Stanley Cup contenders. They have been regulars in the league for a decade, and both impressed in this season’s playoffs. Talk to hockey people and you will not find anyone who has a bad word to say about Couture or O’Reilly on a personal level. They are both dedicated team men who compete hard on a consistent basis. Both have good size, good hands and good hockey sense.
However, neither Couture nor O’Reilly is an elite-level NHL player. Both have flaws that prevent them from achieving superstar status. After watching them go head-to-head for six hard-fought playoff games in the Western Conference final, let’s assess them closely to determine an important question – which of these players is more valuable to a team in the hunt for the Stanley Cup every year?
Their career paths have been different. Couture was a first-round selection (ninth overall) by the Sharks in 2007. San Jose had a strong team. Couture continued to play junior for the next two seasons and then spent half of his first pro season in the AHL. During his 10 seasons with the Sharks, they have been Stanley Cup contenders, only missing the playoffs once. Since his sophomore NHL campaign, Couture has been a second-line center averaging about 18 minutes of ice time per game. In the playoffs, he was used for more than 20 minutes per game. O’Reilly was a second-round selection (33rd overall) by the Avalanche in 2009. Colorado was not a good team. He made the Avs as an 18-year-old in 2009 and played there for six seasons. The team only made the playoffs twice and never won a series. He was then traded to a weak Buffalo Sabres team where he played for three seasons with no playoff appearances. In his first season with the Blues, O’Reilly won the Stanley Cup and was named Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Since his third season in the NHL, he has averaged more than 20 minutes per game. In St. Louis, he centers the second line, but with his special-teams time, he gets first-line minutes. In the 2019 playoffs, he averaged 21 minutes per game. O’Reilly has competed at the World Championship on five occasions for Canada, and he and Couture played on Team Canada in the 2016 World Cup. Edge: Neither
Both players have established their appropriate roles on a Cup contender. They are second-line centers who skate on the first power-play unit and who are also employed regularly as penalty-killers. O’Reilly gets more ice time than Couture because O’Reilly is used for virtually every important faceoff in the last half of close games. Edge: O’Reilly
Couture averages 0.76 points per game in the regular season, with O’Reilly at 0.68. Both players ramped up their production in the playoffs by 0.1 PPG. O’Reilly generated a higher percentage of his points on the power play. Worth noting: in 2018-19, when both were playing for good teams, O’Reilly was more productive than Couture. Edge: Couture
Couture is a solid defensive player. He is alert, smart and always seems to be in a good position. When he is killing penalties, the opposition’s power play always has to be concerned about his ability to turn errant passes into scoring opportunities. Couture is mediocre on faceoffs. O’Reilly is an elite defensive player. He is one of the NHL’s best forecheckers. The key to his effectiveness is his hockey sense. He has the ability to approach at an angle that forces an opponent to one area of the ice. In this way, O’Reilly is able to reduce the speed of his attack. He has an incredible takeaway/giveaway ratio of over 2.5/1. I have long considered Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins to be the NHL’s best faceoff man on important draws. I now believe O’Reilly has surpassed him. On defensive-zone faceoffs, O’Reilly consistently gets clean wins on the backhand and forehand. His well-documented “no whip” hockey stick works magic. Edge: O’Reilly
Computer programmers and analytics people have shown me that skating is the category where scouting reports have the greatest divergence. It is often difficult to reconcile style with effectiveness. Couture’s skating confused scouts when he was playing junior. After more than 700 NHL games, it still confuses them. The reality is if you catch Couture on the right night, he shows quickness and his stride is pretty effective. On those nights, his skating looks average by NHL standards. On other nights, he cannot keep up. His effort and hockey sense remains high, but he becomes ineffective. The reason is the dramatic drop-off in his skating. He cannot sustain an average NHL tempo. Every scout I know rated O’Reilly as a below-average skater during his days in junior. After more than 700 NHL games, even his biggest supporters maintain that below-average rating. He has a strange, hunched-over style with a choppy stride and very little glide. A closer look at O’Reilly’s skating does reveal two positive aspects. In tight quarters, he is effective because his first few steps are powerful. More importantly, there isn’t any noticeable deterioration in O’Reilly’s skating during the course of a game or from night to night. What you see is what you get on a pretty consistent basis. On a good night, Couture’s skating is better than that of O’Reilly. However, Couture has a number of bad nights when his skating is worse. What would appear to be an advantage for Couture is actually not. Both he and O’Reilly are below-average NHL skaters. Edge: Neither
Winning the Stanley Cup is an arduous task. It is not a job for the faint of mind or body. Couture and O’Reilly are both consummate hockey warriors. They compete hard every night and will play hurt. Who will ever forget the sight of Couture returning to action in the 2016 playoffs after incurring a painful facial injury? Since entering the NHL, Couture has played in 91 percent of his team’s games while O’Reilly has played in 93 percent. In the playoffs, they are used more than they are in the regular season. In 2016 and 2019, Couture posted great numbers in the playoffs. However, in both post-seasons, he looked absolutely gassed in the big games where his team was eliminated. In the last two games against St. Louis this spring, Couture was not a factor. He could not move. O’Reilly’s play was remarkably consistent on a nightly basis. In games that went to overtime, he appeared as fresh as anybody on the ice. He was probably the best player in the overtime of Game 2 of the Cup final and he was full value for his Conn Smythe win. Edge: O’Reilly
At 30 and 28, Couture and O’Reilly are basically finished products as players. They have reached their potential. Both are above-average NHL players with good reputations in all intangible areas. Neither of them is an elite player. Neither ever will be. In today’s high-tempo game, every elite player is a better skater than Couture and O’Reilly. Now that both are on contending teams, they fit nicely into their roles as second-line centers who are used on special teams. Couture has been more productive offensively during his career, but that gap is narrowing. O’Reilly is better defensively, a stronger faceoff man and he has better endurance when fatigue sets in. His play is more consistent. The objective is to win the Stanley Cup and O’Reilly has done that. O’Reilly is a more valuable asset than Couture.
Tom Thompson has been an NHL scout/director/assistant GM since 1985.