When Ryan O’Reilly walked into his exit interviews with Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma, there wasn’t a lot of new ground to cover. The center knew what the Sabres expected from him this season – point production, leadership, determination and professionalism – and O’Reilly delivered.
But with Buffalo’s quest for a Stanley Cup coinciding with O’Reilly’s desire for perfection, there was something that needed to be discussed.
“He doesn’t talk enough yet,” Murray said.
O’Reilly is the classic definition of leading by example. He puts in more work than anyone and hopes it filters through the dressing room. It did, with O’Reilly’s post-practice skills challenges drawing more players as the season progressed.
There are times, however, when words speak louder than action. Management believes that, and so does O’Reilly.
“At the beginning of the year I was kind of testing everything out,” he said. “I won’t say nervous, but I wasn’t sure about everything and kind of eased into it. Now I feel I have more of a voice, kind of know every guy and feel I can be more of a leader that way.
“I feel coming in next year that I can be more of a voice right away.”
He got an early start on locker cleanout day. It was the most optimistic wrap-up in years, thanks largely to a playoff pace during the second half, but O’Reilly wanted no part of it.
“It’s tough to look back and say we had success in the second half when we didn’t make the playoffs,” O’Reilly said. “As a team knowing each other better, we have to hold each other more accountable. I think there was far too many times this year we let things slip that going forward next year, because we all know each other and that base is established, we have to hold each other accountable right away.”
O’Reilly is in the perfect spot to hold others accountable for two reasons. First, his seven-year, $52.5 million contract kicks in this summer, making him the highest-paid Sabres player ever. Secondly, no one is harder on themselves than O’Reilly. If the team’s leader doesn’t get a pass, no one should.
O’Reilly had plenty of reasons to like his season. He led the Sabres with 60 points, which ranked 41st in the NHL. No Buffalo center had been in the top 50 since 2009-10, when Derek Roy finished 31st. O’Reilly scored 21 times, set a career high with 39 assists, led all NHL forwards in ice time (21:44 per game) and was third in faceoff wins, including a 61 percent success rate during power plays.
Yet when he summed up the year, his main topics were inconsistency and shootout futility. He overlooked the good to focus on a 24-game goal drought, a minus-7 performance during the six-game losing streak at midseason and an 0-for-6 showing in the breakaway challenge.
“I thought I was very up and down when it comes to generating offense,” he said. “That six-game losing streak that we had was the hole we dug ourselves that was tough to get out of. For myself as a guy that plays big minutes, that falls a lot on me.
“There’s so many different things you can do in a game to help the team win. I was really disappointed with myself in shootouts this year, going 0 for 6. I’m embarrassed about that. Looking back at those games and how great our goaltending was, we win half of those and you never know. We could be in much different position, even getting momentum from those wins.”
There’s no doubt O’Reilly has room to grow, but the 25-year-old is on the path toward being elite. His 22 power-play points tied him with Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg. His neighbors in the point column included the Ducks’ Corey Perry and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos.
“He plays the game the right way,” said Murray, the general manager who targeted O’Reilly as a must-get player. “He’s a guy I thought in a real rebuild early that he could teach our young guys how to play properly, that it’s good to play in both ends of the ice and not to cheat, and to do everything that you can in the right fashion. I’m extremely pleased.”
O’Reilly will continue his learning experiences next month while representing Canada at the world championships. A good showing there can put on the World Cup team.
After that, it’s back to Buffalo to play a good game and talk one.
“We do have a bright future,” O’Reilly said. “The young talent, it’s there. If we decide to work together and still not be satisfied with anything and demand the best of ourselves, we’re going to have success.
“It’s definitely not going to be easy. There’s been a lot of growth in areas, which has been good, but again there is still a lot of improvement that needs to happen.”