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 Bill Masterton Memorial 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 all 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.”
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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 in 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 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.”
Foligno finished second in the Masterton balloting in Buffalo while goaltender Robin Lehner was third. Ten players received at least one vote. Writers in each city nominate a Masterton candidate, and the winner will be announced at the NHL Awards Show in June. The award is named for Bill Masterton, a forward for the Minnesota North Stars who died Jan. 15, 1968, a few days after suffering a head injury during a game.
The Sabres have had two winners: Don Luce (1975) and Pat LaFontaine (1995).
The appearance of hockey royalty had the arena buzzing. Gordie Howe, also known as Mr. Hockey, made a rare visit ahead of his 88th birthday Thursday. Howe, feared to be near death after a stroke in December 2014, has improved well enough to travel from his home near Toledo, Ohio.
The Sabres playing pregame soccer in the arena hallways froze when Howe and his family traveled past them.
“We’ve had five or six guys talk about it in our dressing room that Gordie Howe is going to be here and hoping to see him, hoping to get a picture,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “He just has that ‘special’ about him. In ’14 he was in here, I got a picture with him and got him to sign it. It’s in my basement on my wall.”
Howe suffers from dementia but is aware of his surroundings. He visited the Red Wings’ dressing room.
“We’re pretty lucky around here,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “Ted Lindsay was in here last week. To have Gordie Howe come in here means a ton. This organization has an unreal history, and he’s as big a piece of that as anybody.
“It’s great for the Howe family that he’s able to come here and really doing a real good job healthwise.”
Red Wings assistant coach Tony Granato, who served as Bylsma’s right-hand man in Pittsburgh, is reportedly set to accept the head coaching job at the University of Wisconsin. Granato played for the Badgers from 1983 to 1987.
“We’re very aware of the fact that Tony and Wisconsin have been talking,” Blashill said. “Tony’s committed to being a Red Wings assistant coach throughout the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs as long as we play.”