Depending who you ask — and almost undoubtedly contingent on your proximity to the 314 area code — St. Louis is home to best fans in baseball. Thus, it should go without saying that St. Louis knows a home run when it sees one. And with each passing game, Blues faithful are getting further confirmation that the decision to spend big in order to acquire Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres was the equivalent of a bat-flipping moonshot the moment it left GM Doug Armstrong’s proverbial bat.
First, a refresher. On a day that was headlined by John Tavares’ signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was the Blues who made the second-biggest splash upon the opening of signing season. Late in the day, after many of the major deals had been penned, St. Louis came to terms on a six-piece deal that brought O’Reilly to the Blues in exchange for a package that included a first- and second-round selection, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund and Tage Thompson. It was, by definition, a blockbuster, with St. Louis landing a legitimate top-line center and a still-rebuilding and ever-retooling Sabres club netting a few present-day players and a pair of picks that can help down the line.
The importance of the deal wasn’t lost on those in St. Louis. Only months earlier, the Blues had shipped center Paul Stastny to the division rival Winnipeg Jets while in the midst of a playoff race, a move that upset some within the St. Louis dressing room and stripped the franchise of an all-important top-six piece. In the time since, the Blues had done little to replace had been lost, short of signing Tyler Bozak as a middle-six pivot. But that changed with the O’Reilly acquisition.
In every way since his arrival, O’Reilly has delivered, too. Indeed, while things weren’t quite as peachy-keen in St. Louis as they are right now, what with the Blues among the league’s top teams over the past few months, O’Reilly has never failed to deliver on his promise as a true No. 1 center. Case in point, even during the woeful outings that led to then-coach Mike Yeo’s firing, O’Reilly’s production was one of the lone bright spots of that first quarter of the campaign. In 19 games under Yeo, O’Reilly registered 10 goals and 23 points. And his offensive production has continued since, not only at a team-leading rate but one that has seen him already best his previous career-high point total and has him well on his way to a new career high in goals.
In fact, it was Wednesday’s game, one in which the Blues pumped home two markers in a dozen seconds to stun the Anaheim Ducks, that saw O’Reilly surpass his previous career-best point total. Entering the game with 63 points, one shy of the 64 he scored during the 2013-14 campaign with the Colorado Avalanche, O’Reilly managed a goal and an assist to push his point total to 65. And while that would surely be the big story for most, O’Reilly’s two-point night was largely overshadowed by the heavy lifting he did throughout the entire evening. On the night, O’Reilly skated a monster 24:37, putting him a mere four seconds back of Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo for the highest ice time of any player on either team.
And it’s in that way that O’Reilly’s acquisition has truly paid dividends. Say what you will for his offense — which, again, has been excellent this season — but the reason the Blues paid what they did to bring him aboard was because of his two-way ability. He is among the cream of the crop in the NHL when it comes the much-talked-about 200-foot game and a player who should, in any just world, have at least a Selke Trophy top-three to his name by the end of his career.
Need some food for thought on O’Reilly’s two-way prowess? How about this: According to NaturalStatTrick, there are 331 forwards who have played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 this season. Of those, O’Reilly ranks 253rd with an offensive-zone start percentage of 47.6 percent. Yet, despite a heavier slant of starts in his own end rather than the attacking zone, O’Reilly ranks 55th in Corsi percentage. His 53.7 percent on-ice possession rate is a monster number given where he’s most often starting play and it’s the sixth-best mark of any forward with an offensive-zone start percentage below 50.
What comes with his two-way proficiency is a level of reliability that few players boast and a responsibility the likes of which few players are awarded, evidenced not only by the fact O’Reilly skated 24-plus minutes on Wednesday night — the seventh time this season he’s eclipsed that mark — but by virtue of the incredibly exclusive club to which he belongs. This season, there are only six forwards who have averaged two or more minutes on the penalty kill and two or more minutes on the power play. O’Reilly can count himself as part of that group, all the while he’s logging nearly 16 minutes per outing at even strength.
Truly, almost any way you slice it, there’s no way in which O’Reilly’s acquisition hasn’t been a fence-clearing blast, to the point that we’re not all that far from it becoming inconsequential what comes of the traded draft choices or Thompson’s development. And if O’Reilly can keep this up through the home stretch and continue it on into the post-season, you can go ahead and chalk this one up as a no-doubter.