ST. LOUIS – There are some players whom winning seems to follow around. Scott Niedermayer, Mark Messier and Brianna Decker immediately come to mind. It didn’t seem to matter for which team they played, the season very often ended with them holding something shiny over their heads.
Until this season, Ryan O’Reilly was not that player. In fact, he was the antithesis of that player. Going into this year’s post-season, O’Reilly had played in a grand total of two playoffs encompassing 13 games. He hadn’t participated in a playoff dance since 2014 when his Colorado Avalanche finished third overall in the NHL with 112 points only to – you guessed it – lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Minnesota Wild. That was followed by three absolutely miserable seasons with the Buffalo Sabres that caused O’Reilly, who is usually remarkably upbeat and optimistic, to begin to wonder if it wasn’t something with him. To be sure, he was an elite player who could not shake the shadow of losing, something that continued when the St. Louis Blues found themselves in last place overall on Jan. 3.
“At the beginning of the year when we were struggling, I felt that and I had to re-evaluate what was going on,” O’Reilly said. “A guy who’s playing a ton of minutes on this team and we’re not winning. It was frustrating. It was tough because the outside world was obviously really disappointed and there was not much faith.”
That same outside world, however, knew that O’Reilly was not the problem here. In fact, he was performing at an incredibly elite level, smashing his career high for offensive output. Finally, the Blues started to win and going into Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final Saturday night, find themselves three wins away from winning the ultimate prize. If they do, it will be because O’Reilly, who could conceivably win both the Selke and Lady Byng Trophies this season, has been a huge part of the answer.
Along with Vladimir Tarasenko, O’Reilly carries the highest cap hit on the Blues’ roster at $7.5 million. The Blues thought so much of O’Reilly that they traded for him July 1, the day he was due to receive $7.5 million in signing bonus money on his deal (to go along with his base salary this season of $1 million). The Blues paid that bonus because they believed O’Reilly could help them immeasurably and they were right. In what has become one of the most ridiculously one-sided deals in recent memory, the Sabres received Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson and a first- and second-round draft pick. The deal was a complete disaster for the Sabres, not because it was made – that was inevitability – but because they got so little in return.
And after those monumental struggles, the Blues started to win games. They’ve been among the best teams in the NHL since the calendar turned to 2019 and are full marks for their appearance in the Stanley Cup final. With O’Reilly anchoring the second line between Sammy Blais and David Perron, O’Reilly led the team in scoring and finished fifth in the league in faceoff winning percentage at 56.9 percent. No player in the NHL won more draws than the 1,083 O’Reilly won this season.
When O’Reilly showed up in Toronto for the annual BioSteel camp last summer, he did so as a player with a renewed hope for his career, one that had been a little tarnished when he acknowledged that he had, “lost the love of the game multiple times,” and that he began to accept losing with the Sabres. You can chalk that one up to being beaten down so badly and to him not exactly being in a great frame of mind to express his frustrations properly. But by the end of the summer, O’Reilly had adopted a new mindset. And he was downright prescient.
“A Stanley Cup is possible,” O’Reilly said in late August. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely possible.”
O’Reilly could not have known at the time how his path to the Stanley Cup final could have gone. To be sure, it was not near as linear as he might have expected, but he’s here. And he’s close to making his bold proclamation a reality.
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