Ryan O’Reilly understands he’s important. The Sabres didn’t give up a boatload and pay the center a truckload for him to be just another guy in Buffalo’s dressing room. He’s supposed to lead the organization in every way imaginable.
He’s embraced the role. In the process, he’s become the easiest person to find.
Walk into the Sabres’ arena before practice, and he’ll be on the ice. Arrive after practice has ended, and he’ll be on the ice. Watch the key faceoffs, vital penalty kills, game-changing power plays and crucial moments, and he’ll be the ice.
If that’s not enough, just look at the score sheets and lists of NHL leaders. He’s there, too.
So when O’Reilly was absent from the Sabres’ workout Saturday, it was obvious a higher power had intervened.
“I had to keep him off,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He said it would have been all right if he had gone on, but I said, ‘No, you’re not going on.’ ”
O’Reilly will be back in his normal role Sunday when the Sabres visit the New York Islanders, but the 24-year-old certainly earned a day off. He played 26:03 during Friday’s 3-1 victory over Philadelphia, an immense workload in the easiest of times but almost mind-boggling for the second night of back-to-backs. He skated 21:39 the previous day in Pittsburgh.
“I maybe rode him a little hard with how much I played him and the situations I played him,” Bylsma said, “but he was the best player on the ice in pretty much every situation. He’s coming up big for us.”
While Jack Eichel is on his way toward becoming the face of the Sabres, O’Reilly is undoubtedly their backbone. He has 10 points during a five-game point streak, boosting his season totals to four goals, nine assists and 13 points. He’s on pace for career highs of 29 goals, 67 assists and 96 points.
Yet he still thinks he’s not doing enough.
“It’s more looking at the results, and we don’t have the wins we want,” O’Reilly said of the 4-7 Sabres. “It’s nice to get on the board, obviously. I’m more confident that way.
“At the same time, I’ve still got to turn it up a little more. I think there’s a little extra in there.”
If there’s more to give, the Sabres and their fans have a real prize on their hands. Consider:
• O’Reilly entered Saturday’s schedule ranked first in the NHL in power-play points (seven), faceoff wins (160 for a 59 percent success rate) and ice time among forwards (21:32 per game).
• He was fifth in the NHL in points (four behind Dallas’ Jamie Benn) and power-play goals (three).
• He is second on the Sabres in average power-play ice time (one second behind Tyler Ennis’ 3:39) and third in short-handed time (1:49).
The Sabres thought he could do it all when they acquired him from Colorado in June and promptly signed him to a seven-year, $52.5 million extension. He’s proving them right.
“You can’t say enough good things about the guy,” defenseman Jake McCabe said. “It’s big-time when one of your star players is the one working hardest. That’s what you want as a team and as an organization, to have that work ethic and desire to be better every day, and he’s the epitome of that.”
A rink rat as a child
O’Reilly’s daily routine has drawn impressive looks from every corner of the dressing room. While most players still have their skates hanging in their stalls before practice, O’Reilly is on the ice helping the goaltenders. When most players have already showered and changed into their street clothes, O’Reilly is still tipping pucks or skating laps.
“It’s something I’ve always done,” said O’Reilly, who was a childhood rink rat with brother Cal. “We’d stay on the ice, do as much as you can until you don’t want to do anymore and you’re tired. I don’t really think about it now. It’s just preparation and practicing. If I feel I’m struggling in one area, I like to get out there and work on that one area a little bit.”
O’Reilly has been carving his reputation as a hard worker since he was a 16-year-old standout for the Erie Otters.
“He comes as advertised,” said Sabres defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who played in Erie before O’Reilly and would hear on-ice tales when he’d check in with friends. “It’s not like it’s something he just picked up. It’s something that’s always been with him, and it’s gotten him this far. It’s made him the player he is.”
O’Reilly’s reputation for putting in extra hours was one of the things that attracted the Sabres’ attention. They needed another leader for their young prospects, and O’Reilly is serving as a pied piper.
Rookie Sam Reinhart is a regular alongside O’Reilly before practices. Various players come in sweaty at the end of extended workouts.
“If you look at the way he works, for someone who you kind of look up to and follow, I think it really helps me out,” Reinhart said. “I’m trying to surround myself with someone like him on a daily basis and learn from him. Someone as high-profile, if you must say, coming into an organization, he leads by example in that way.
“It says a lot to both young guys and the older guys that have previously been here about what it takes to be successful in this league.”
O’Reilly is a rarity in that he acknowledges his career changed with the trade and contract. The prices paid put him in an elite category. It’s why he is so hard on himself during interviews and self-evaluations.
“Coming here and seeing what they expected me to be, I have to be hard on myself,” O’Reilly said. “On teams previous, I don’t think my role was as big, so here being brought in to be seen as one of those key guys offensively, I think there’s more pressure on myself, which I enjoy, but at the same time I have to be better.”
He picked up that trait from his brother, too.
“We both want to win, and when we’re not winning and we don’t feel we’re playing to our capability, we’re not too happy with ourselves, especially being leaders on teams,” said Cal O’Reilly, who is the captain in Rochester. “You want to make sure that your game is always where it should be to show the younger guys and other guys on the team.”
It’s two months into a long partnership, but O’Reilly has already given the Sabres what they expected. The prize he expects will have to come later.
“We want to have success, and we want to win a Cup,” O’Reilly said. “That’s the main goal. As a group, we have to look every day and demand the best out of ourselves if we want to give ourselves a chance.