Share this article

print logo

Inside the Sabres: The curious case of Ryan O'Reilly

Ryan O'Reilly is a good hockey player. Everything else is up for debate.

Is he a quitter who packed it in when the going got tough? Or is he a guy who simply got sucked into the vortex of losing known as the Buffalo Sabres?

Is he in it for the paychecks? Or does O'Reilly really want to lead a franchise?

Does he sincerely want to stay in Buffalo? Or is he orchestrating his next step like he and his agent have done all along?

Can O'Reilly even stay in Buffalo? Or has he poisoned his standing with a blue-collar fan base?

One of the most stunning exit interviews in Sabres history will reverberate for some time. The alternate captain and highest-paid player admitted he was OK with losing, wasn't mentally tough and lost his love of the game.

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

In a city that made folk heroes out of gritty players such as Rob Ray, Michael Peca, Mike Foligno and Jim Schoenfeld, the center may as well have said Gilbert Perreault was a bum and Rick Jeanneret is a hack.

Odds are good O'Reilly knew exactly what he was saying.

O'Reilly's interviews usually follow a common theme. The quote, "It starts with me, I have to be better," would be the free space on a Sabres bingo card. The 27-year-old is the same whether it's a one-on-one chat or scrum.

He had plenty of time to think about what he'd say on locker-cleanout day. With every news outlet in Buffalo recording him, O'Reilly unleashed bombshell after bombshell. From the rubble came cries of, "Ship him out of town."

It could be what he wants. While in Colorado, he said he longed to be a team leader. The Sabres traded for him and gave him a chance. He said he couldn't wait for the challenge.

O'Reilly ready to be a leader with the Sabres for a long time

He hasn't lived up to it. After a solid first year, the Sabres have gotten progressively worse. They clearly lack talent and depth, but leaders such as Jay McKee and Chris Drury made sure there was an honest effort regardless of the odds.

O'Reilly contributed to the most lackadaisical, uncaring team in Sabres history. By confessing his sins, he may have found an out.

From a business standpoint, there isn't a more calculated career going in the NHL. O'Reilly and his agent, Pat Morris, have (wisely) used every angle to their advantage:

* Following an entry-level contract that saw O'Reilly average 13 goals and 23 assists in three seasons, the center held out at the start of 2012-13. Morris worked out an offer sheet with the Calgary Flames, which Colorado matched to retain the center.

O'Reilly's average annual salary jumped from $880,000 to $5 million.

* The design of the two-year offer sheet impacted O'Reilly's next deal. He made $3.5 million in salary during the first season, and it jumped to $6.5 million in 2013-14. Because he was again a restricted free agent, a qualifying offer was based on the actual salary of $6.5 million and not the cap hit of $5 million.

The Avalanche opted to take O'Reilly to arbitration, and the sides settled on a two-year deal that averaged $6 million per season.

* Morris and O'Reilly, who used the collective bargaining agreement to their advantage with the offer sheet, weren't happy with Colorado's use of the CBA. Heading into the arbitration hearing, Morris noted in a Sportsnet television interview that O'Reilly would be an unrestricted free agent in two years and "there’s a history a little bit on the previous contract and Ryan is a stubborn young man." O'Reilly said he'd go year-to-year.

In other words, O'Reilly wasn't in Colorado for the long haul.

* After the first year of the two-year deal – a season in which O'Reilly's numbers dropped from 28 goals and 64 points to 17 goals and 55 points – the O'Reilly camp said it would take an eight-year, $64 million extension to keep the center in Colorado. Unwilling to continue the contentious partnership, the Avs traded O'Reilly to Buffalo in June 2015.

* Before the center set foot in Western New York, then-General Manager Tim Murray signed O'Reilly to the richest contract in franchise history – $52.5 million over seven seasons. If that wasn't enough, Murray signed O'Reilly's brother, Cal, to a lucrative deal.

The journeyman got a two-year contract that paid $700,000 per season whether Cal O'Reilly was in the NHL or the American Hockey League. The forward's previous deal with Vancouver had salaries of $600,000 or $325,000 depending on the league, and his current deal with Minnesota has a $700,000/$375,000 difference, according to CapFriendly.com.

(It should be noted Cal O'Reilly, who was Rochester's captain, bolted the struggling Amerks before his deal was up. Murray simply loaned him to the Amerks' rival, the Toronto Marlies, late in the 2016-17 season.)

Inside the Sabres: Ryan O'Reilly's search for magic words

All told for Ryan O'Reilly, he's pocked $42.7 million during his nine-year career with $32.5 million to come, including $27.5 million in buyout-proof signing bonuses. That's for an average of 18.6 goals and 31.6 assists per season, excluding his holdout- and lockout-shortened season of 2012-13.

It's not numbers, however, that are supposed to make O'Reilly worth the money. It's his leadership and intangibles. His father, Brian, made that clear during the holdout.

"Ryan is not a superstar based on skill but character," Brian O'Reilly wrote in a February 2013 email to the Denver Post. "Everyone is looking for those players that eat sleep and drink the game and are unselfish plus compete because they are intrinsically motivated for excellence.

"My children were raised in an environment of sport where Athletics was held up as something you do to develop your sense of personhood, qualities of collaboration, team play and most important the development of your character, mental toughness as an individual and it was FUN from which you Learn. How many goals you got or how many points you got was not how you measured yourself. What was important was giving your best day in day out."

Five years later, Ryan O'Reilly did and said the exact opposite. He hasn't been what he was groomed to be, which could be why he regularly employs the self-flagellation stick. He gets down on himself, which creates more bad performances and actions. It's created a vicious cycle from which he can't escape.

With his public revelations, he may have found an escape hatch from Buffalo. Teams will undoubtedly contact the Sabres about his availability. A successful suitor would get a power-play scorer, faceoff king and a two-way center who faces the top lines during crucial situations.

The rest of what they'd be getting is up for debate.

Inside the Sabres: Saying goodbye to underachievers won't be easy

Story topics:

There are no comments - be the first to comment