It was something that we only dreamt of.
At the 2015 National Hockey League Entry-Level Draft in Sunrise, Florida, the Buffalo Sabres were set to draft 18-year old sensation, Jack Eichel, with the second overall pick. Eichel was the winner of the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s most valuable player as a freshman at Boston University, and was coined as a “generational” player who can turn the course of a franchise.
But who would have thought the Sabres would have had the opportunity to grab two high-caliber centers in just one day? Well, it happened.
The rumors swirled throughout the day, and just before the NHL Draft had begun, general manager Tim Murray had pulled off a blockbuster deal with the Colorado Avalanche to acquire center, Ryan O’Reilly.
The trade was O’Reilly and teammate, Jamie McGinn heading to Buffalo in exchange for 20-year old defenseman, Nikita Zadorov, former first round center, Mikhail Grigorenko, prospect forward, J.T. Compher, and a second round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.
O’Reilly, 24, was drafted by the Avalanche with the 33rd overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft out of the Ontario Hockey League with the Erie Otters.
In O’Reilly’s rookie season, he put up eight goals and added 18 assists in 81 games played with Colorado as an 18-year old.
In his time with Colorado, O’Reilly was capable of playing top line minutes, however was stuck behind a group of players which included Matt Duchene, Alex Tanguay, Paul Stastny, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon. Plus, O’Reilly was coming up on a contract season, in which he wanted to get a long-term deal. The Avalanche did not want to pay O’Reilly big money with the intentions of trying to save cap space. With those factors, it made O’Reilly expendable.
It seemed as though the Avalanche were going to trade O’Reilly, it was just only a matter of when.
There had been numerous times before June where the Sabres were linked, by Bob McKenzie and other hockey analysts, to O’Reilly. Finally, Murray made the move to get the guy he wanted for quite some time.
In addition, the Sabres would extend O’Reilly for seven more years, just days after he was acquired by the team. In addition to earning $6 million he was owed in his current deal, O’Reilly will earn an average salary of $7.5 million starting next season through the 2022-23 season.
This would be O’Reilly’s first chance to embrace a top line roll, and be a veteran leader on a team with a group of talented young kids. And at 24, O’Reilly is just another young weapon in the group.
In the preseason, we caught a glimpse of what O’Reilly could do with the Sabres. He was winning key face-offs, setting up his teammates, and making some clutch plays in key situations. O’Reilly finished the preseason with a short-handed goal, three assists, and was 50.6-percent on his draws while averaging 20:27 of total ice-time in four games.
On to the regular season, where his start with the team did not go as first planned. In the first game of the season against the Ottawa Senators, O’Reilly finished with no points, no shots, and a minus-2 rating in 20:17 of total ice-time. The next game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was held pointless once again and only played 19:25 of total ice-time.
But since his first couple games, O’Reilly has come alive. O’Reilly was finally finding the back of the net, winning face-offs, and was establishing himself as Buffalo’s most reliable player on the ice.
In 19 games played this season, O’Reilly has seven goals on 54 shots, nine assists, 10 takeaways, and is nearly 59-percent on face-offs while averaging 21:41 of total ice-time per game.
Points aside, head coach Dan Bylsma has heavily relied on O’Reilly in all situations on the ice. O’Reilly is the top center on the top powerplay unit, and also plays an important role on the penalty kill. O’Reilly has been utilized in all areas of the ice, and has played very well in both ends.
When the Sabres need to hold a lead late in a game, O’Reilly has been relied upon to win face-offs and preserve the lead.
In one game this season, O’Reilly was on the ice for the final 2:50 of the game to preserve a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders. Granted, the Sabres and Islanders each took a timeout, and there were a couple of stoppages in play, but to play the final three minutes without taking a single shift off is unbelievable.
Perhaps the biggest reason as to why O’Reilly is Buffalo’s “X-Factor” is that the way the whole team plays when he playing well. O’Reilly is the type of player that can change the course of play with his play on the ice.
When O’Reilly makes some big plays early on, the team seems to be more energized and play a better 60-minutes of hockey.
On October 30 against the Philadelphia Flyers, O’Reilly had one of his best games with the Sabres in the early season. O’Reilly came out flying, and was Buffalo’s best player early on. He would register the primary assist on Eichel’s first period goal to open the scoring for the Sabres. In the second period, O’Reilly would score an important powerplay goal to put Buffalo up 2-0 early in the second period. Finally in the third period, O’Reilly would help put the icing on the cake with a beautiful cross-ice pass to Nicolas Deslauriers to give Buffalo a 3-0 lead.
O’Reilly was Buffalo’s best player from start to finish in the game. The team around him played, arguably, one of its best games of the season. In addition, O’Reilly played over 26-minutes in the game, which for a forward is absolutely nonsense.
But it is not the only instance of how much of an impact O’Reilly has on his team.
When O’Reilly scores a huge goal, the team around him picks up their play and it is electric.
Recently, on two separate occasions, the Sabres were down to the opponent at home. On November 14 against the San Jose Sharks, the Sabres were trailing 1-0 in the third period when O’Reilly makes a clutch steal and buried the puck to tie the game. For the next ten minutes of play, the Sabres were relentless offensively, putting pucks on goal and controlling the pace of play in the Sharks zone. In the end, Buffalo would fall to the Sharks in overtime, 2-1.
The next game against the Dallas Stars, Buffalo was down 2-0 in the third period when O’Reilly scores another huge goal for the Sabres to bring the game within a goal. For the next few minutes, the team was flying up and down the ice and were, once again, relentless in the Stars zone. The Sabres would have the game-tying goal overturned due to a challenged offsides, and Buffalo would fall 3-1.
These two examples just go to show that O’Reilly is not just capable coming up in the clutch, but he is capable of carrying the load and swinging the momentum of play with the puck on his stick.
For a season in which Buffalo was not projected to make the playoffs, O’Reilly has been a pleasant surprise for the Sabres. If O’Reilly continues his style of play, he will help the Sabres continue to contend for the playoffs.
But what may be more exciting is the possibility of O’Reilly and Eichel being the one-two punch in Buffalo for the next ten years. If both players are capable of playing to its full potential, the Sabres could be one of the best offensive powerhouse teams in the NHL for many years to come.
But, right now, it all starts with #90.
Keep it locked to BLTD Sports for all the latest from the Sabres and elsewhere around the NHL.