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Sabres’ O’Reilly picked as All-Star for first time

Ryan O’Reilly has worked hard to become the go-to guy for the Buffalo Sabres. He isn’t the type to rest on his laurels, not even after becoming an NHL All-Star for the first time.

After an hourlong practice ended Wednesday, O’Reilly accepted hugs and pats on the helmet for being selected to represent Buffalo in this month’s All-Star Game. He sheepishly smiled, then went back to work.

For more than 30 minutes, O’Reilly created drills to sharpen his skills and those of his teammates. It showed why he’s quickly become the leader the Sabres desperately needed.

“He’s come in and really been the heart and soul of our team,” coach Dan Bylsma said in First Niagara Center. “He’s played that way, practiced that way, acted that way.”

The NHL recognized O’Reilly’s efforts by picking him as one of 11 members of the Atlantic Division All-Star team. He’ll head to Nashville for the gala, which includes the annual skills competition Jan. 30 and All-Star Game on Jan. 31.

“To be an NHL All-Star is a dream come true,” said O’Reilly, who leads the Sabres with 16 goals and 34 points. “Anytime you can put the puck in the net it’s something that everyone sees.”

What few people see is what makes the 24-year-old so valuable to the Sabres. The skills session that O’Reilly conducted was a clear example.

First, he made a triangle out of three sticks at the edge of the slot. He and teammates took turns lofting passes into the circle so a shooter could quickly fire a shot at the net. Then he put the sticks parallel to each other so he could lift the puck over the first, stickhandle around the second, flip the puck over the third and quickly shoot.

While the group slowly dwindled, O’Reilly kept creating. Other drills included skating through water bottles and carrying a puck through, around and over a pile of sticks shaped like an X.

“There’s so many nuances in the game that you have to practice,” said O’Reilly, who learned drills from his father, Brian. “One thing he always taught me was be creative with it. For those drills, it’s doing stuff uncomfortably. Trying to stickhandle it in uncomfortable areas, that’s how you get better. Being able to train in discomfort is much more effective than being in a comfort zone.

“Those are just little things that I think help my game, and hopefully it’s helping other guys.”

The drills, production and All-Star honor are signs that O’Reilly is achieving his goal. He wanted to be a cornerstone in Buffalo after being acquired from Colorado, and he’s succeeded.

Not that he sees anything as a success story yet.

“I wanted to prove that I can be a huge part of a team,” O’Reilly said. “I’m obviously still trying to do it, and obviously being an All-Star is a step in that. But there’s so many things going forward. If you don’t win hockey games or be a team that competes for a Cup, I don’t think it matters, you know?

“We want to be a real team, a competitive team, and we’re not that right now. That’s something we have to get back to.”

The Sabres, who’ve lost five straight heading into Friday’s game in Chicago, are 29th in the 30-team league at 15-21-4. It’s why O’Reilly wants to be even better despite becoming the backbone of the franchise.

“Losing five straight, I’ve got to find a way to help lead,” he said. “Obviously, leadership is plural and everyone has to do different things, but I have to be a main guy that gets us going and gets us back to where we need to be.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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