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Sabres give O’Reilly richest contract ever

Before he ever steps on the ice here, center Ryan O’Reilly has earned a unique distinction in Buffalo hockey history.

The 24-year-old is now the owner of the largest contract ever awarded by the Sabres, a seven-year, $52.5 million extension finalized Friday that will put him in Blue and Gold through the 2022-23 season. The previous high was the seven-year, $50-million deal Thomas Vanek earned in 2007, but that was formalized as a match to an offer sheet by the Edmonton Oilers.

“We’re happy to have Ryan locked up to a long-term deal,” General Manager Tim Murray said in a statement issued by the team. “It’s not easy to find a player who, at his age, is already established in the league as someone who plays a complete game and makes his teammates better.

“When we acquired him, we viewed him as someone who could immediately improve our roster but was still young enough to make an impact for several years to come, and this contract reflects that belief.”

O’Reilly will have a $6 million cap hit this season in the final year of the deal he brings over from the Colorado Avalanche. The extension kicks in for 2016-17 with a $7.5 million annual cap hit.

“It’s always exciting to see the commitment of a franchise and ownership like what Buffalo has shown in Ryan,” agent Pat Morris said by phone from Toronto. “It’s great faith on their part for a long time.”

O’Reilly’s contract is built with an unusual structure. According to reports in Canada, confirmed independently by The News, O’Reilly is getting a salary of just $1 million per season. That means roughly 87 percent of the contract will be paid in the form of signing bonuses.

O’Reilly will get a $10 million bonus in 2016-17, $8 million in 2017-18, $7.5 million in 2018-19 and $5 million for each of his final four seasons. O’Reilly will be 32 years old when the deal expires.

“It’s something where he gets money earlier to do what he wants with it,” Morris said.

The deal apparently allows O’Reilly to skirt around high escrow payments. Players had about 14 percent of their base salaries withheld in escrow this past season until the league’s final revenue numbers were released.

It also is pretty much a buyout-proof deal. Even if the Sabres opted at some point to terminate the contract, as they did this week with Cody Hodgson, O’Reilly would still collect his bonuses while the Sabres would only be able to buy out one-third of the $1 million per year salaries.

O’Reilly had 17 goals and 38 assists last season after posting career highs of 28 goals and 64 points during the 2013-14 campaign. That’s the only season the 6-foot, 210-pounder has eclipsed either 20 goals or 60 points, but O’Reilly is a favorite of the analytics community because of his intangibles.

Murray revealed when he acquired O’Reilly that Sabres winger Tyler Ennis raved about his new teammate’s work as Team Canada won the gold medal at the tournament in Prague.

O’Reilly, a former Lady Byng Trophy winner, should help Buffalo’s woeful puck possession numbers and was tied for 20th in the NHL last season in faceoff percentage at 53.4. That should also be a big boost for a Buffalo team that ranked last in the NHL at 44.9.

“Analytics are something that teams have three and four people on their staff for and they appreciate players who win faceoffs, who stay on the ice and don’t hurt their team by taking stupid penalties,” Morris said. “You want to be known as a leader and I know at the World Championships, a lot of people were talking about him as the next most important guy on the team after Sidney Crosby.”

Later Friday, the Sabres also announced they had signed O’Reilly’s older brother, Cal, to a two-year contract that pays $1.4 million whether he plays in Buffalo or Rochester.

Cal O’Reilly, 28, was the captain last season for the AHL’s Utica Comets, who lost in the Calder Cup finals.

In other news:

• The Sabres announced the full schedule for next week’s development camp, which will feature the on-ice debut of top draft pick Jack Eichel. All sessions are in First Niagara Center and are free and open to the public except for the annual Blue & Gold scrimmage on Friday, July 10. That is a ticketed event with tickets going for $10 and available at Sabres.com.

The full schedule – Monday: coach’s practice, 1-3 p.m.; Tuesday: skills practice, 2:30-6 p.m; Wednesday: coach’s practice, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m; Thursday: On-ice testing: 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Friday, Pre-scrimmage skates: 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m and scrimmage, 7 p.m.; Saturday, July 11: Off date. Sunday, July 12: Practice/three-on-three tournament: 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

• The Sabres have signed veteran NHL defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo to a one-year deal for a reported $900,000. Colaiacovo, 32, played 32 games last year for Philadelphia, posting two goals and six assists. He is a left-shot defenseman, which the Sabres have an acute need for, but does not project to be the top-four blueliner Buffalo is looking for.

Colaiacovo was a first-round pick (17th overall) in 2001 by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has played in 434 career games with the Leafs, Detroit, St. Louis and Philadelphia.

• The Rochester Amerks have signed forward Cason Hohmann – a Boston University teammate of Eichel – and goaltender C.J. Motte to AHL deals. Hohmann, 22, had 11 goals and 20 assists in 41 games for BU last year, and could potentially join Eichel linemate Evan Rodrigues in Rochester. Motte, a 2014 Hobey Baker finalist, went 18-20-2 with a 2.07 goals-against average, .922 save percentage and five shutouts last season for Ferris State. He is 6 feet, 190 pounds.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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