DETROIT – The Sabres wanted a solid foundation while building from the ground up. They needed players with skill, but they desired someone dedicated to improving who could show others the importance of hard work.
They found their guy in Ryan O’Reilly. Buffalo’s leading scorer is also its most determined player, one who has made the pursuit of winning and the desire for a flawless game his main objectives whenever he walks into a rink.
“Me and my brother, we just always grew up loving the game,” O’Reilly, whose brother, Cal, also plays for the Sabres, said Monday. “We always wanted to get as best as we could. We never think we’ve arrived anywhere. We always want to grow our games and ourselves. It’s one of those things that we enjoy in the game is getting better.”
O’Reilly has improved, and so have the Sabres. The 25-year-old has helped bring focus to a young team that needed it. His efforts have been recognized by the Buffalo chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, which has nominated O’Reilly for the Masterton Trophy.
The award is given annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. O’Reilly excels in the last two categories. The former Lady Byng winner has just four minor penalties despite leading NHL forwards in ice time at 21:48 per game.
“He’s very dedicated to hockey,” Sabres left wing Marcus Foligno said in Joe Louis Arena. “I’m sure that award goes with the passion you have for the game, too. He really loves the game and has a huge heart for winning.
“The way he plays, too, is the right way. He works hard, has got skill and has been a leader for us all year. He’s been our top leader when it comes to work ethic, and definitely the dedication he shows to the game is nice for all these young guys coming in and learning from him.”
Sabres management knew O’Reilly had a reputation as a hard worker, which is why they acquired him in a blockbuster trade with Colorado in June and promptly gave him the richest contract in team history. O’Reilly certainly got off on the wrong foot with Buffalo – he was charged with driving while impaired and leaving the scene of an accident, a case that will go before an Ontario court in July – but his efforts at the arena have created the pied-piper effect that the organization sought.
Attendance for O’Reilly’s extensive post-practice drills, which he designs to improve his skills, has steadily grown. They have been particularly beneficial for rookie Sam Reinhart, who has blossomed into a 21-goal scorer.
“It’s such a beautiful game,” O’Reilly said. “You can be so creative in so many different ways in training, and we just like to incorporate all that. It’s a lot of fun. It’s just the greatest game in the world, and I’m very lucky and fortunate to be able to play at this level and want to play here as long as I can.”