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Sabres' Ryan O'Reilly says he lost love of game, lacked mental toughness

Losing has made Ryan O'Reilly a shell of what he used to be and a fraction of what he was supposed to be.

Acquired in 2015 to help lead the Buffalo Sabres out of the basement, O'Reilly has instead joined them there. He's found he was OK with that.

"We're stuck in this mindset of just being OK with losing," O'Reilly said Monday. "I feel it, too. I think it's really crept into myself. Over the course of the year, I've lost myself a lot, where it's just kind of get through, just being OK with just not making a mistake. That's not winning hockey at all, and it's crept into all of our games.

"It's disappointing. It's sad. I feel throughout the year I've lost the love of the game multiple times. You need to get back to it because it's just eating myself up and eats the other guys, too. It's just eating us up, and it's tough."

O'Reilly's love for the game, his desire to be on the ice was supposed to be a positive influence for the club. Yet despite getting the opportunity to be a leader – and being paid $52.5 million to be one – the 27-year-old has instead lost the joy.

"Yeah, it's crazy," O'Reilly said as the Sabres cleaned out their lockers in KeyBank Center. "It's just at different times. Obviously, so privileged to be able to play this game professionally. It's the NHL. It's the best job in the world, but at times throughout the year I've felt I lost it.

"There's times where I found my game and just enjoy it and it's fun, but when you lose consistently like this for years, it's tough."

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He said winning was what once drove him.

"I just hated to lose, and just with everything that's gone on, I just kind of had nowhere to go with it," O'Reilly said. "It was just kind of, 'Oh, it's all right. As long as I did some things well, it's OK.'

"That's how I kind of fell out of love with it, and I miss that. I want to get back to myself."

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He's hoping he finds himself in Denmark. O'Reilly will again represent Canada at the world championships next month.

"I'm excited for that," he said. "I think it's a great opportunity. I'm excited, and it's been awhile since I've had that kind of excitement in myself that I've got a good chance over here to go try to win something. It'd be nice to get that back, and hopefully I do and can carry over into next year that fresh, excited mindset."

With all that's gone on, it's a question of whether next year will be spent in Buffalo.

"I really want to be a part of the solution here," said O'Reilly, who has five years left on his contract. "I love this city. I love it here. I call it home. There's some good pieces, but yeah, it's a big change that I need to make mentally.

"I've said this so many times that I've got to be a lot better. I hate sounding like a broken record, but I'm going to stick with it. I'm going to keep trying. If something happens and I'm moved, then obviously it's a change that they decide to make. But I want to be here. I want to win here because I feel it would be special here. It's a great city, and they deserve a winning team."

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Statistically, O'Reilly was in his wheelhouse. He had 24 goals, 37 assists and 61 points. He averaged 21.5 goals, 37 assists and 58.5 points the previous four years.

But with the large contract – he's collected $18 million in salary the last two seasons – more is expected overall. Is too much expected?

"What's important is what I expect of myself, and I know what I can be," O'Reilly said. "I just feel I've been so inconsistent. At the end of the day it doesn't really matter what other people think of me besides my teammates. Those are the only guys I really need to answer to.

"Yeah, I don't think I've been good enough. I feel I can be a lot better in that way. … I think I have to get myself together. Look at just the way I started the year, I was lost right from the get-go. I've got to improve."

As his words obviously show, O'Reilly can carry a better mindset.

"I don't think I was mentally tough enough this year," he said. "That's something I have to be a lot better at. I think it affected too many things. I think that's something that I need to focus on, and I think I know how to improve that.

"A lot of the things, I don't think it really matters what I think. It's kind of what I do."

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