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Trade to Sabres has brightened O’Reilly’s star

NASHVILLE – It was just a little over seven months ago that Ryan O’Reilly was simply a rumor. The chatter for months was that the Buffalo Sabres wanted to pry him from Colorado but it was nothing more than that. Then the deal happened on NHL Draft night in Florida, mere minutes before the Sabres officially landed Jack Eichel.

Then things really started happening for the 24-year-old as O’Reilly signed a seven-year, $52.5-million contract extension that will make him the highest-paid player in Sabres history when it kicks in next season.

He quickly became a leader on the ice, the team’s leading scorer in both goals and points, and in the dressing room. His post-practice sessions with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, among others, have become huge additions to the development of the team’s young stars.

And when he hits the ice late Sunday afternoon in Bridgestone Arena, O’Reilly becomes a first time All-Star and his team’s lone representative to the NHL’s midseason showcase.

“I never thought I’d be in this position. Everything happened so fast and being in Buffalo has been great,” O’Reilly said here this weekend. “The team, we’re not where we want to be yet. But me being able to come to town for this event has definitely been a positive.

“I remember watching these games back when I was young, seeing the players in it. To be considered one of them is an honor. To think back on that seven-month period, it’s amazing how much has changed. I never would have thought that.”

O’Reilly has 17 goals and 23 assists this season, on pace to match his career high in goals (28) set two years ago in Colorado. His point pace of 66 would eclipse his career high of 64.

He can do for the Sabres things like no player they’ve had since Chris Drury. The former Buffalo co-captain left in free agency in 2007 when former owner Tom Golisano wouldn’t pay him a $25 million deal. It took the Sabres eight years, a new owner − and an extra $27.5 million − to finally get a reasonable facsimile of Drury.

“He’s definitely a great player. He plays hard every night, plays the right way,” said Boston center and former Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron. “I think you follow guys like that. Eichel is definitely an amazing player and has years ahead of him to become a superstar in this league. Ryan O’Reilly is still young too, and people don’t realize that. Every year he seems to improve.”

O’Reilly is notoriously hard on himself. There is never blame spread to others in the dressing room. He believes accountability should start at his stall and move around the room. When current captain Brian Gionta’s career is over, it seems inconceivable that anyone but O’Reilly will wear the ‘C’ for the Sabres in the near future.

“When I look back on every game, there’s minor details that can make a difference,” he said. “You’re not sharp on them, you don’t do the right thing in that split second, it can mean the difference and that’s what the game is all about. With me, it’s not always huge things but there’s details and decisions at critical times. If you want to be a successful team, those are the things you have to focus on more.”

A jumbled January

O’Reilly’s All-Star appearance comes with the backdrop of his biggest slump of the season. He had just two goals and a minus-14 rating in 12 January games and suddenly has a minus-16 rating for the season − the worst on the team.

Certainly, that’s a product of Buffalo’s offensive struggles, O’Reilly’s heavy usage in the defensive zone and the fact he’s been leading NHL forwards in ice time almost all season (his current average is 21:52).

“I think it’s a needed break for myself,” he said. “Any time you’re struggling a bit offensively, it’s nice to get away from the game for a bit and come back with that hunger and that’s what I plan to do.

“It’s been frustrating for sure. That’s one of the huge staples of my game, starting from my own end and playing from there. I’ve struggled that way and definitely feel responsible for some of those losses we’ve had and those goals we’ve given up.”

O’Reilly discounted fatigue from his heavy minutes as a factor in his recent play.

“I never really look at the minutes I’m playing,” he said. “There’s always a certain feel you have to do. These breaks are key for that to recover, get that hunger so I can play that high pace.”

O’Reilly owns one of Buffalo’ two overtime-winning goals this season with his falling flip shot to beat Los Angeles and former Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth, a clear No. 1 on the team’s highlight reel in the non-Eichel Division.

Star power

Each division’s all-star roster has only six forwards, with O’Reilly joining captain Jaromir Jagr, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, Toronto’s Leo Komarov and Detroit rookie Dylan Larkin up front for the Atlantic squad. Their opponent in the 20-minute, 3-on-3 semifinal is the Metropolitan Division captained by John Tavares of the New York Islanders.

It will be interesting to see how hamstrung the Atlantic team gets, and how much it uses a one-forward, two-defensemen alignment as the 43-year-old Jagr reiterated here Friday that he doesn’t want to play much. He’s never played more than two minutes in any OT for the Florida Panthers this season.

“I think it will be a high pace,” O’Reilly said. “Sometimes with five guys on the ice, you get lackadaisical. With this, you have to skate, have to move your feet.”

Like every All-Star, O’Reilly has been busy since he arrived here Thursday night. In addition to media obligations Friday, O’Reilly participated in a fan autograph session at Winter Park, the outdoor fanfest Nashville created adjacent to Bridgestone.

Then he got a personal tour of the Black River Entertainment studios, the country record label owned by Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula. He even got to play some guitar and record some notes. It’s that kind of personal touch − combined with their $52.5 million − that has impressed O’Reilly about the Sabres’ ownership. It’s the kind of commitment to him that he never got in Colorado.

“I’m definitely thankful for the contract they gave me and I feel responsible for to help bring a Cup to the city,” O’Reilly said. “They’ve been outstanding, with family, with their staff. The Pegulas have been just so generous and kind. They’re down-to-earth people.

“Talking to them both, they’re so easygoing you never think they have the money they have, the power they do. It starts from them and trickles down. There’s so many features of them, they treat everyone with such respect and it’s great to be a part of that.”

A regular Buffalo guy

After signing his landmark contract, O’Reilly became a city resident as he bought a sprawling 5,600-square-foot North Buffalo home near Delaware Park previously owned by Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. O’Reilly routinely hears from fans in the neighborhood and around town, and said the interactions have been almost all positive.

“I get a lot of feedback from people and they’re definitely happy to have a competitive team back,” he said. “They find the team works and is in a lot more games. It’s nice to hear but as a player, honestly, I’m not happy with that. You want to be in the playoff race or in the playoffs.

“The people there have just been outstanding. It’s a hockey town. They love the Sabres. No matter what happens, they’ll always be there and you don’t get that in a lot of cities. We just know we have to be better. We still have a long, long way to go.”

email: mharrington@buffnews.com