DENVER – Though mountains dominate the landscape in Denver, there’s a long stretch of flat land between the airport and downtown. It allowed Ryan O’Reilly to stare out his bus window at the place he called home for most of his adult life.
The memories flooded his mind as he saw the city skyline, and he was happy to be back.
“I feel like it’s the city where I kind of turned into a man,” O’Reilly said Tuesday. “Coming in so young and all the experiences I’ve had here, it’s just such a great time. There’s so many good relationships that I had here whether it was teammates and just friends in the city. It’s definitely something I missed.”
He’ll find out soon whether the fans in town missed him. The center will lead the Sabres into Wednesday’s game against Colorado, the first meeting between the teams since June’s blockbuster trade that brought O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn to Buffalo in exchange for Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher and a draft pick.
O’Reilly has a pretty good idea how the welcome in Pepsi Center will go.
“I don’t think it’ll be a great one,” he said, “but I’m happy with the way everything worked out. I’m happy in Buffalo now.”
Despite having plenty of fond memories, there are more than a few bad ones for O’Reilly. In this case, money is the root of the evil. He held out in 2013 and signed a two-year, $10 million offer sheet with the Calgary Flames that the Avs matched. He told longtime Denver reporter Adrian Dater of Bleacher Report this week that the big deal caused locker-room friction, most notably with fellow star Matt Duchene.
After another bitter negotiation during the summer of 2014, it seemed like a matter of time before O’Reilly would play elsewhere.
“It was out of my control,” O’Reilly said after practice in Big Bear Ice Arena. “It was the business side of things.”
The 24-year-old doesn’t have to worry about business matters until 2023, thanks to the seven-year, $52.5 million extension the Sabres gave him after the trade. It made him the highest-paid player in franchise history.
“It’s a huge honor, but with that comes a lot of responsibility,” O’Reilly said. “I know I have to work even harder and grow my game even more because there’s that pressure there. They hired me to do a job. I don’t think they gave it to me on what I’ve done but on what I’m going to do.”
All he’s done so far is become the Sabres’ most productive player and their lone All-Star. He leads the team with 17 goals and 39 points in 46 games. He’s won 57.5 percent of his faceoffs (seventh in the league) while leading all NHL forwards in ice time at 21:55 per game.
“Ryan loves the game of hockey, and he’s going to give 100 percent effort every time he’s out there,” McGinn said. “He’s fell in love with Buffalo. He loves how the fans treat him, and he loves the area. He’s settled in, but that doesn’t change him. He continues to work hard every day and continues to be better. Last one off the ice every day, and he’s our most skilled and he’s our leader.
“We’re all taking pages out of his book. That’s why he’s such a great player is he continues to strive forward and get better.”
O’Reilly still sees plenty of room for improvement. His overall rating of minus-8, for example, includes a minus-9 for home games.
“There were a lot of times I could have impacted the game more,” he said. “We’re a group that’s learning together and growing together, and at times we’ve had some success. Our power play’s been great this year. Obviously, there’s ups and downs like every year, but I’m definitely not satisfied and need to do more.
“It’s been a great transition, though. It’s a hockey town. We have a great group of guys here. Obviously, having the extended contract and being there for a while and being seen as more of a leader, it’s just a way to expand my game and grow as a player and a person. It’s been great that way.”
O’Reilly, who has a history of leading by example, says he’s still learning to inspire teammates through his words as well.
“Time and time again, I’m trying to find new ways to say the right things,” said O’Reilly, whose father, Brian, is a life coach in the business of motivating people. “I try to keep guys focused and say the right things, but again that’s something that will continue to grow. After games, before games, during games, I’ve always got to find new ways to help the team.”
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma has no doubt O’Reilly will help the team during his return to Denver, where he spent the first six seasons of his career.
“Hopefully,” Bylsma said, “he shows them exactly what they’ve missed.”