It didn’t take much to make Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma smile when the subject of Ryan O’Reilly was brought up after practice Monday.
The team’s all-situations minutes cruncher returned for his physical after playing for Team Canada in the World Cup of Hockey and will be in the lineup for exhibition games this week.
How much does his return mean?
“Our team got smarter, it got better, it got harder working,” Bylsma said wryly in KeyBank Center. “Coaches got better today too. When Ryan comes back, he’s that type of player.”
O’Reilly, 25, was a late injury replacement for Dallas’ Tyler Seguin and joined Team Canada in time for its final exhibition game.
He quickly assumed a regular role as the fourth line center between San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Colorado’s Matt Duchene, and as one of the penalty killers. O’Reilly did not have a point in his six games and averaged 11 minutes, 12 seconds of ice time
“It was amazing, a quick turnaround and I get thrown right into the game when I didn’t expect to play,” he said. “It was a great tournament, some of the fastest hockey I’ve ever played. And the team we had, some of the guys I’d played before but a lot of guys I hadn’t. To see the depth of Canada, the skills these guys play with and every little thing they do is just amazing.”
O’Reilly is heading with the Sabres on their two-game preseason road trip and will sit out Tuesday’s game in Marquette, Mich., against Carolina (7 p.m., NBCSN).
He’s expected to make his exhibition debut Wednesday against the Hurricanes in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and also suit up for the finale Friday in Ottawa.
Jack Eichel, who has been at practice a few days after playing for Team North America, will make his debut Tuesday.
“You kind of go through camp to this point in time without Jack playing a game, without Ryan playing a game and you’re missing a big part of your team,” Bylsma said. “Now ... you’re adding two big pieces.”
“I’m excited to get back with the boys,” O’Reilly said. “I’ve got a little more responsibillity and I’m excited with that. There are lessons you take. To get a taste of what it’s like to win a championship is a great feeling and something we want to have soon in this room.”
O’Reilly said he reveled in centering for the 37-year-old Thornton, one of his favorite players growing up.
“I tried to play like him, a playmaker constantly making the right passes,” O’Reilly said. “Getting to play with him was pretty crazy. It was awesome. I was talking to my parents after and I said, ‘How crazy is it I’m playing on line centering Joe Thornton?’ I took a step back because I never would have thought as a kid I’d be doing that. To win with him too was awesome.”
Team Canada won the title with a sweep of Team Europe in the best-of-three final, taking a 2-1 victory in Game Two as Patrice Bergeron tied the score on a power play with 2:53 left and Boston teammate Brad Marchand won it on a short-handed goal with 43.1 seconds to go.
“Guys stayed focused, stuck to the game plan and did the right things,” O’Reilly said. “From there we got a couple good bounces and to win it like we did with a beautiful goal from Marchand, that was incredible. The place erupted. To do it in Canada in Toronto made it even more special.”
O’Reilly led the Sabres last year in assists (39) and points (60) while finishing third in goals (21).
He led all NHL forwards in average ice time at 21:44 but Bylsma said he’d like to be able to develop other players this year so he can cut back on O’Reilly’s ice time.
“I played him too much. I don’t like saying that but I played him too much and I’d like to count on him less,” Bylsma said. “The strength of our team could come from more areas and count on Ryan to do a little less.”
That said, Bylsma admitted the temptation will remain strong to push the envelope on O’Reilly’s usage.
“If we don’t have anyone to win a draw, I’m putting out Ryan O’Reilly to win the draw and I don’t care if he’s tired or not. He’s going out there to win the draw.”
“Consistency is the big thing. I had solid numbers but there were areas where I slumped or didn’t perform the way I want to,” O’Reilly said. “As a leadership role being more comfortable with everyone, I have to be more vocal, grow that way and be a better leader.”