The enigma that is Ryan O’Reilly

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It is becoming more and more clear that if Jason Botterill can move Ryan O’Reilly for the right price, he will.

O’Reilly is a controversial figure for many fans because statistically he has performed as expected, putting up around 20 goals and 55-60 points a season while dominating at faceoffs. His two-way play is well regarded league-wide and he routinely joins Team Canada for their international competitions.

At the same token, he was brought in with the expectation that his leadership could help elevate a young team become contenders with himself as the role model that players like Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart could learn from.


However, his inconsistent play and general lack of engagement last season have fallen under criticism as the team regressed.

How did a guy who was hailed as a Chris Drury type figure when he was brought in come to the point where he being discussed regularly as a trade candidate?

O’Reilly started with the Colorado Avalanche back in 2009-10. He learned behind established players like Paul Stastny and quickly established himself as an excellent two-way scoring threat. He was a guy that was well revered in the locker room for his leadership. Things changed though due to a contract dispute with the Avalanche in 2013, resulting in an offer sheet from the Calgary Flames that forced the Avalanche to pay him $5M a season for two years.

At a time when other young players like Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog saw the Avalanche invest in both with big contracts, O’Reilly was left feeling on the outside. Additionally, once the captaincy went to Landeskog it seemed as though O’Reilly wasn’t the primary focus for the organization. He wanted to be one of the main guys for the Avalanche, though. His production and play showed in the 2013-14 season when the Avalanche made a surprising run to the playoffs. After that season O’Reilly was an RFA and the Avalanche settled with a two-year extension while knowing it was a matter of time until he was moved.


Fast forward to the summer of 2015 and O’Reilly is traded to Buffalo where he joined young phenom Jack Eichel, signs the largest contract in franchise history at $52.5M, and finally gets his shot to have his own team in a sense as one of the core pillars.

The Sabres were getting a guy who had produced very consistently, and from a distance, at the time seemed to be one of hockey’s better young leaders.

In his first season, O’Reilly delivered on everything expected, posting 60 points in 71 games while helping to develop Eichel and Reinhart. Paul Hamilton of WGR would routinely point to how O’Reilly would work after practice with Reinhart and other youngsters to improve their play. His leadership was praised by Dan Bylsma that season. 

For as bad as the 2017 season was for the team and O’Reilly, the 2016 season in retrospect shows some of the cracks in the player O’Reilly was. Expectations were pretty high as the Sabres went into the season, and even after Jack Eichel’s injury, the team rebounded enough to be in playoff position before the bye week in February.

But by this point you could see O’Reilly’s consistency had fallen off and he looked out of gas with still a quarter to go in the season. In perhaps the defining point of the season the Sabres imploded out of the bye losing 7 of their next 8 games, including two against the league’s worst teams.


By the end of the season, many of the comments we heard from O’Reilly were similar to what we heard in 2018 — wanting to do more for the team etc. You could see from afar the locker room was not right either with reports of turmoil – and that should have been a red flag – that O’Reilly may not be the leader the Sabres expected to help right the ship. For a guy with his contract and responsibilities, it was not unreasonable to expect a better presence from him on and off the ice.

The Sabres 2017 season is documented with a multitude of issues all over and O’Reilly’s performance being up and down throughout. All season it had been said he looked really off, his presence was hard to predict game in and game out, and he no longer was doing little things after practice like he had in the past.

That is why his comments at locker room cleanout rang so much louder when they were said. The same guy who wanted the responsibility and big contract to be a pillar now was saying he lost the love of the game at times and lacked the mental fortitude to compete that season.

This was not what the Sabres expected three years earlier when they traded for O’Reilly. His stat lines had produced to about what you would want, but the leadership part seemed to just be burned out of him whether it be frustration or a ship with too many holes to fix.


Botterill will have a really interesting and hard decision with O’Reilly.

He has shown the ability to be a pretty consistent scorer and would certainly help insulate the center spot so Casey Mittlestadt isn’t rushed in his development. Removing him from the lineup will create a hole unless the return is a forward.

Some players are better leaders when their role is more of a complimentary role and that just might be more of what O’Reilly needs to be shifted to.

What is O’Reilly’s role leadership-wise to this team if he stays?

This will be a pretty young team moving forward and O’Reilly at this point has demonstrated he cannot be one of the main pillars. Would O’Reilly himself be content moving into more of a support role with this roster, which would lessen the pressure on him currently?

Culture in sports is a major competent to a team’s success or lack thereof. Incredibly talented teams in sports have fallen far earlier then they should have because they lacked the chemistry and leadership needed to win.

In a sport like hockey that is such a team game, O’Reilly has proven to be on both sides of the leadership spectrum.

This is the player he is for better or worse, and it’s up to Botterill to see if he can still be a piece to the Sabres long-term equation, or if moving him is the smarter option.

Craig Mazuchowski
Craig Mazuchowski
SUNY Oswego Alumni. Self-taught guitarist. I've been a Sabres and hockey fan since birth. I've also refereed youth hockey and play in a men’s league. My tombstone will be in the shape of pizza.
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