Blues acquire O’Reilly, upgrade down the middle in blockbuster deal with Sabres

The St. Louis Blues weren’t in the running for John Tavares, didn’t bring back Paul Stastny and their lone upgrade in the early hours of free agency were two middle of the road signings in center Tyler Bozak and winger David Perron. But the Blues were far from done as they made arguably the second-biggest splash of the day by landing center Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres in a blockbuster six-asset trade in the waning hours of the opening day of free agency.

As one would expect from such a trade, there’s a lot to digest. And the full breadth of the deal is as such: St. Louis acquires the biggest present-day piece in O’Reilly, a legitimate top-line center who makes the Blues better in an instant; the Sabres acquire Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, a first-round pick in 2019 — which, we kid you not, is lottery protected — and a second-round pick in 2021. As for the much-reported $7.5 million signing bonus that was due to O’Reilly, that’s also the Blues’ to pay.

What might surprise some in the transaction, however, is that when the money is all settled and the dust is cleared, St. Louis actually comes out ahead in the transaction. A $7.5-million AAV for O’Reilly is heft, to be sure, but in the deal the Blues also off-loaded Berglund’s $3.85 million cap hit (which carries through to the 2021-22 season), Sobotka’s $3.5 million cap hit for the next two seasons and Thompson’s $925,000. All told, that’s $8.275 million heading to Buffalo.

Let’s flip this analysis on its head a bit, too, and tackle Buffalo first. This isn’t sunk money for the Sabres. Sure, it’s a big spend, but after the transaction, the Sabres are spending that money on two players — and quite possibly three — who are sure to make their roster better as early as next season. Losing O’Reilly is difficult, but with Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt as a one-two punch down the middle, there was no long-term fit for the 27-year-old pivot. Thus, bringing Berglund into the fold, who can easily slot into the second or third line at a fraction of the cost, is a nice little addition for Buffalo. After the addition of Conor Sheary earlier this week, Sobotka comes in as a nice middle-six winger, too, albeit at a higher price. And whether he makes the roster or not, Thompson has tremendous upside. He was a top-25 prospect in THN’s Future Watch 2017, as selected by a panel of scouts.

This is to say nothing, either, of the draft choices. The lottery protection is a weird wrinkle. St. Louis is likely to be a Central Division title contender next season. They have all the pieces in place to be a legitimate Western Conference contender. But a first-round selection, even if it’s in the late-20s, along with could be a mid-second round pick in three years’ time only bolsters Buffalo’s futures. And, hey, if in a couple years’ time the Sabres are contenders — don’t laugh! — that’s a second-round pick that can be packaged to add a piece at the deadline.

In the immediate, though, it’s clear this is the kind of all-in move that can make St. Louis contend for more than a divisional title. Some will undoubtedly contend that it’s an overpay in both money and assets for O’Reilly, but he’s one of the best two-way centers in the league and one who can play monster minutes and put up points. He’s averaged 22 goals and 62 points per season over the past seven seasons. His average ice time over that same span is upwards of 20 minutes, the sixth-highest of any 400-game forward in the league. And while it may seem a silly accomplishment to bring up given it’s one of the more disparaged annual awards, O’Reilly has finished top-10 in Lady Byng Trophy voting in each of the past five seasons. He rarely puts his team at a disadvantage, an outstanding attribute for a player who sees as much ice time as O’Reilly.

When paired with the addition of Bozak, too, O’Reilly stands to make the Blues an incredibly difficult team to play against. Down the middle, St. Louis now stands to roll out a trio of O’Reilly, Bozak and Brayden Schenn, the latter likely centering the second unit, and Perron’s return to the Blues will mean the top six consists of him, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen. That’s an awfully talented group, and that’s without considering the potential for a Dmitrij Jaskin, Nikita Soshnikov or a healthy Robby Fabbri to push for one of those spots.

The outstanding thing at this point is that St. Louis still has money to spend, if they so choose. Yes, Fabbri needs a new contract, as does Jaskin and defensemen Joel Edmundson and Jordan Schmaltz. But the Blues are $8.41 million under the cap. That’s more than enough to lock up all three with money to spare, which is to say St. Louis doesn’t need to be done adding. Another rearguard might serve them well, or even an additional bottom-six forward, but regardless of what they add, the Blues got much better with Sunday’s trade while actually saving some money.

Are they overnight Stanley Cup favorites? Maybe not. But one season removed from selling at the deadline, the Blues most certainly aren’t to be taken lightly.

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