After a last-place season, General Manager Jason Botterill promised the Buffalo Sabres were going to get a shakeup. After several moves in recent days, Botterill delivered with a blockbuster Sunday night.
Center Ryan O'Reilly, who signed what was the richest contract in team history just over three years ago, was traded to the St. Louis Blues for a large haul: A first-round draft pick in 2019, a second-rounder in 2021, prospect forward Tage Thompson and veteran forwards Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka.
The much-rumored trade ends O'Reilly's three-year run in Buffalo, where he was one of the franchise's most heavily used players during a period where the team's results were mostly a failure.
"We'll certainly miss Ryan's productivity because he is a top-end player for us," Botterill said on a conference call Sunday night. "But that's why it was key to get NHL players back. ... We felt as a management group at the end of the season we had to change the dynamic. The bottom line was there's a lot of great people in that locker room but when you finish 31st, you have to look to make changes. And that's why we felt there was a good balance in making this move."
The Blues appeared out on O'Reilly Sunday after signing Toronto center Tyler Bozak to a three-year, $15 million deal. They balked at parting with the likes of top center prospect Robert Thomas or standout defenseman Colton Parayko, but talks rekindled Sunday night and a deal was struck.
The New York Islanders, who lost John Tavares to Toronto earlier Sunday, were heavily involved in talks with the Sabres Sunday night before the deal with St. Louis was broken by TSN's Pierre LeBrun and Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman.
No salary was retained and the Blues paid the $7.5 million signing bonus O'Reilly was owed on July 1. Buffalo would have had to pay that if O'Reilly was traded after midnight. O'Reilly carries a $7.5 million cap hit for the next five years as part of the seven-year, $52.5 million deal he signed with Buffalo in 2015 after being acquired in a major trade with Colorado. The first-round draft pick is top-10 protected, meaning it could be pushed back to 2020 in the event St. Louis is selecting in the top 10 at the draft next June in Vancouver.
"If it went past midnight today, the asking price was certainly going to be a lot different," Botterill admitted. "You never say never but it certainly played a role in making sure the deal was done today."
Thompson, 20, was St. Louis' first-round pick in 2016. The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder had three goals and six assists for the Blues in 41 games this year and eight goals and 10 assists in 30 games for San Antonio of the AHL.
"We're looking for more scoring from our wings," Botterill said. "What we see with Tage is a kid with a great shot, great size, has a really good reach on the ice, played NHL games as a 20-year-old, had an opportunity to win a World Junior gold medal (with Team USA in 2017). We think he's a player that's going to be able to step in our lineup and grow with our young centermen."
Berglund, 30, was St. Louis' No. 1 pick in 2006 and has played 694 NHL games with the Blues over the last 10 seasons. He had 17 goals and 26 points in 57 games last season and has cracked the 20-goal barrier four times, with a career high of 23 in 2016-17.
Sobotka, 30, was Boston's fourth-round pick in 2005. He had 11 goals and 20 assists for St. Louis last season after returning from a three-year stint in the KHL. He was a chief agitator for the Bruins against the Sabres in Boston's 2010 first-round playoff victory over Buffalo.
Berglund is signed for the next four years at a cap hit of $3.85 million. Sobotka is signed for the next two years at $3.5 million. Thompson is on his entry-level deal and will have a cap hit of $925,000 the next two years.
O'Reilly had 21 goals and 39 assists in 2015-16 and followed that up with 20 goals and 35 assists in 2016-17. He set Buffalo career highs last year with 24 goals and 61 points and set an NHL record for faceoffs won in a season. But his two-way play suffered dramatically as his plus-minus rating ballooned from minus-1 to a career-worst of minus-23 on a Buffalo team that again finished last overall in the NHL with just 62 points.
O'Reilly won the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play with Colorado in 2014. He was a finalist for the award last month after drawing just one minor penalty all season. See O'Reilly's career stats here.
But the beginning of the end for O'Reilly in Buffalo came immediately after the season. On locker cleanout day in KeyBank Center, he made big news on both sides of the border and stunned the assembled media members from Western New York when he calmly revealed the impact all the losing the last three years was having on his resolve.
"We're stuck in this mindset of just being OK with losing," O'Reilly said that day. "I feel it, too. I think it's really crept into myself. Over the course of the year, I've lost myself a lot, where it's just kind of get through, just being OK with just not making a mistake. That's not winning hockey at all, and it's crept into all of our games.
"It's disappointing. It's sad. I feel throughout the year I've lost the love of the game multiple times. You need to get back to it because it's just eating myself up and eats the other guys, too. It's just eating us up, and it's tough."
Botterill said O'Reilly's comments did not automatically write a one-way ticket out of town. He said the core of the Sabres is now players from ages 18-23 and O'Reilly at 27 was outside that bracket for a core player.
"I don't think he needed a change of scenery at all," Botterill said. "As I've stated before I think he was being very honest about the situation. I think it was probably a situation where other players felt the same way. We have discussed over the last couple of months making adjustments to our team.
"I had some great conversations with Ryan at the end of the season. I knew if Ryan was coming back, he was certainly going to be a big part of changing things here in Buffalo. We just felt comfortable at this time with what St. Louis was offering."
O'Reilly was on a cruise when he learned of the trade. The Blues website showed video of a phone call from GM Doug Armstrong welcoming O'Reilly to the team.
Said O'Reilly in reponse to Armstrong's greeting: "Thanks a lot. I appreciate it. Let's go win a Cup. I'm so excited. I appreciate it. I won't let you down. I can't wait."
O'Reilly got back on the ice during the World Championships in Denmark, when he once again was one of Team Canada's key players. O'Reilly won a gold medal for Canada in 2017 and also won the World Cup in 2016.
Speaking to TSN in May, O'Reilly insisted he didn't want to be traded by the Sabres and said his comments in April were simply the way he felt at the time.
"I want to change. I want to be in Buffalo. I love it there," he said. "Obviously, we're getting the first pick, which will be huge, but, gosh, it's a great city and I want to be there and I want to win. Yeah, I was just being honest, and I feel I need to do that more."
Former Sabres General Manager Tim Murray coveted O'Reilly and chased him for over a year before finally acquiring him on June 26, 2015, in Sunrise, Fla., less than a half hour before taking Jack Eichel with the No. 2 overall pick right after Edmonton selected Connor McDavid.
The Sabres immediately moved on an extension and signed O'Reilly to the seven-year, $52.5-million contract a week later. It was the biggest ever given to a Sabre until Jack Eichel signed his eight-year, $80-million extension last October. Eichel's contract just kicked in Sunday.
A few days after O'Reilly signed his deal, things took a darker turn when he was arrested in Lucan, Ont., for driving while impaired and fleeing the scene of an accident. O'Reilly reportedly drove his vintage Chevrolet pickup truck into the side of a Tim Hortons cafe shortly after 4 a.m. and was arrested about a mile away while sitting on a curb.
In his first interviews in Buffalo in September 2015, O'Reilly apologized for his indiscretions and said they had caused him great embarrassment. On the ice, meanwhile, he quickly became a key force in the dressing room as he often ran skill sessions for young players like Eichel and Sam Reinhart after practice ended.
The Sabres improved from 54 points in 2014-15 to 81 the next year in Eichel and O'Reilly's first year with the club. O'Reilly's court case, meanwhile, lingered for nearly a year before he was acquitted of the charges in July 2016.
The business side of the game has always been a factor in O'Reilly's NHL career, which started when he was Colorado's second-round pick in 2009 from the Erie Otters, the same Ontario Hockey League team that produced McDavid six years later.
After his entry-level contract had expired, O'Reilly held out prior to the start of the 2013 lockout season. Agent Pat Morris worked out an offer sheet for two years and $10 million from Calgary, which the Avalanche matched to suddenly shoot his average salary from $880,000 to $5 million.
O'Reilly had his best NHL season in 2013-14 with 28 goals and 36 assists as the Avs posted a surprising Central Division title. But Colorado lost a seven-game thriller to Minnesota in the only postseason series of O'Reilly's nine-year career.
O'Reilly's production fell the next season to 17 goals and 55 points and his frustration grew over his situation in Colorado. The Avs chose Gabriel Landeskog to be their captain and took O'Reilly to arbitration before the sides settled on a two-year, $12-million deal.
After the first year, O'Reilly reportedly sought an eight-year, $64-million extension from the Avalanche but Colorado balked. He didn't break through for a big deal until the trade to Buffalo.