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O’Reilly criticism completely misguided

The nomination of Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy was such an absurdly hot-button topic across the Internet last week that it deserves some final discussion points here.

Each team’s chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association picks a nominee for the award, which goes to the player judged to best show the qualities of “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” After receiving information on the 30 nominees, members voted last week and the winner will be announced at the NHL Awards Show in June 22 in Las Vegas.

Eleven members of the Buffalo chapter – one of the biggest in the association – voted on the Masterton. Members were requested to vote for a first, second and third choice, although two voted O’Reilly No. 1 and declined to even name two other choices because they felt so strongly about his candidacy.

The voting was a landslide: O’Reilly was named on nine of the 11 ballots, and listed first or second on seven of them. Marcus Foligno was the only player listed on as many as four ballots and Chad Johnson was the only player to get as many as three first or seconds.

The backlash was centered on O’Reilly’s DUI incident in Ontario last July that will be going to trial in London this summer. As the chapter chairman, I was subjected to hundreds – yes, hundreds – of tweeted protests of this nomination, many filled with the requisite amount of eighth-grade profanity that’s such an ugly part of social media. It was telling that exactly one tweeter identified himself or had a bio that indicated he was from Buffalo and politely said he had a problem with the nomination. There was pretty much zero dissent on this issue from Sabres fans because they know what O’Reilly has meant to this organization this season, just like the media that regularly covers the team.

The PHWA has refocused this award, with instructions to strictly interpret the three criteria listed above and not simply have it be a Comeback Player of the Year award from injury or illness. The Masterton had devolved into that in recent years, until Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk won it last season.

The faux outrage on social media about O’Reilly reached ridiculous proportions as multiple blogs went for the easy “we’re offended” clickbait and many opined with the “what did he overcome?” line. Which shows a basic lack of understanding of the award.

Greg Wyshynski’s Puck Daddy blog, a staple of Yahoo! Sports, irresponsibly fanned the flames with a post claiming the O’Reilly nomination earned “widespread mockery.” Widespread, as in tweeted jokes from two team bloggers and one NHL Web writer not currently working full-time for any site. Of course, Puck Daddy is the blog that trademarked mockery by initially promoting the candidacy of John Scott for the All-Star Game.

Pot, meet kettle.

SB Nation’s Travis Hughes then indignantly tweeted that the Buffalo chapter “should have to answer” why O’Reilly was nominated, never mind that a story was posted on at 9 a.m. Monday, the leaguewide release time, explaining the nomination and another one was posted later in the day with comments from O’Reilly and teammates. Hughes then doubled down on his foolishness with a rambling post that began: “I’m not around the Buffalo Sabres much. Aside from one game I watched from a press box and a few games I’ve watched on TV, I am basically completely foreign to them this season.”

News flash: If you’re not around the Sabres much and you’re “basically completely foreign to them,” then you’re not qualified to judge the merits of a vote by people who cover the team every single day.

What O’Reilly did in driving his vintage pickup drunk into a Tim Hortons at 4 a.m. then walking a mile before being arrested was obviously stupid. Numerous people protested by saying, “he could have killed somebody.” He didn’t. No one was injured so that’s not relevant either.

O’Reilly has been repentant on this issue from the first day in September that he began interacting with fans and media in Buffalo. He’s embarrassed by it and it has absolutely driven him to show that’s not what he’s about. But it was an off-ice issue, and those don’t disqualify him for the award. If people think they should, then they can petition the association to change the rules.

O’Reilly is the best leader this franchise has had since Chris Drury. He is a former Lady Byng Trophy winner for sportsmanship. His dedication to hockey is unmatched. Ask anyone in that locker room. So how long should his scarlet letter to qualify for awards last? A year? Five years? Ten years? This award is about his play on the ice. Is Patrick Kane getting disqualified from Hart Trophy balloting because of his off-ice troubles? He is not. That’s an on-ice award, too.

One last point: Where was all this staged outrage when O’Reilly was named as the Sabres’ lone representative to the All-Star Game? That was an on-ice award too – and a far more significant one than a chapter nomination for the Masterton Trophy. Nary a peep from anyone on social media or in the blog world about O’Reilly then. The bloggers must have been too busy congratulating themselves for making fun of Scott to notice O’Reilly was in Nashville, too.

In praise of goalie coach

Chad Johnson, Robin Lehner and Linus Ullmark have all had big praise at different times this season for new Sabres goaltending coach Andrew Allen, an out-of-the-box candidate from the Chicago system who had never been on an NHL staff.

Allen had big shoes to fill with the departure of Arturs Irbe, but Johnson added to the raves Thursday. Specifically, he said that Allen understands that goalies have their own private tutors (Johnson works with Western League-based consultant Justin Cardinal), is patient through the ups and downs of a season and doesn’t force the same style to each netminder on his team.

“The biggest thing is just how he understands each individual’s style. He knows what I need and the way I prepare for a game,” Johnson said. “… At times with different guys, you want to make changes right away if you let in a certain goal. People want to make changes right away but Andrew understands my style, the way I play situations. We have that good chemistry and that’s why for me it’s such a good fit and I’m having success.”

Under Allen, Sabres goaltenders entered the weekend tied for 10th in the league in save percentage at .915. That’s equal to or better than seven current playoff teams. Don’t underestimate how Allen’s presence could be a factor in Johnson’s decision when free agency comes in July.

Bad ice in Brooklyn

Something to watch as the weather gets warmer and the playoffs start: The poor quality of the ice in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center is becoming a major issue. Islanders winger Kyle Okposo went off on the arena last week after a win over Carolina and coach Jack Capuano agreed with him.

“Can’t have it like that. It’s got to change,” Okposo told the New York Post. “It’s got to be better than that. Early stages, kind of felt like one of the preseason games out there. It wasn’t very good.”

Okposo, of course, is a top pending free agent this summer. The Islanders’ situation in Brooklyn is not good, with most players living and practicing out on Long Island and taking a late-afternoon train to the arena for games. Poor working conditions aren’t going to help attract or retain players.

Around the boards

• All Canadian teams were eliminated from playoff qualification for the first time since 1970 when the Flyers’ shootout win Wednesday knocked Ottawa out of the race. Wrote Montreal-based historian Dave Stubbs: “Teams from this country clearly didn’t bring their Eh-game.”

• The Wild became the first NHL team to win every game against the Blackhawks in a season series of at least five games since the Bruins beat Chicago eight times in the 1938-39 season. The Wild were 5-0 against the Hawks this season, just the third five-game sweep against a defending Cup champion. And it came against the team that eliminated them from the playoffs the last three years.

• A bizarre note from the Elias Sports Bureau: Ryan and Cal O’Reilly became just the fourth set of brothers to have a multi-goal game for the same team in the same season in the last 20 years. Daniel and Henrik Sedin have done it eight times for Vancouver. Scott and Rob Niedermayer, the former Sabre, did it twice for Anaheim and Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn did it both for Montreal and Nashville.

• The Oilers will close Rexall Place and yet another good-riddance season with a planned 90-minute ceremony following Wednesday’s home finale against Vancouver. Known as Northlands Coliseum during the glory days of the Wayne Gretzky era, every former Oiler has been invited back to the old arena for the ceremonies and many of the Stanley Cup winners are scheduled to attend.

The game was pushed back from 8 p.m. local time to 5 p.m. (7 p.m. in Buffalo) so the ceremony wouldn’t stretch late into the night and so it would be shown at a better hour across Canada. The Oilers move into downtown Edmonton’s glittering new Rogers Place next season.


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