ST. LOUIS – Ryan O'Reilly will be in a familiar spot Thursday night in Enterprise Center, albeit against an unfamiliar opponent. He's on another losing team and again putting up big numbers.
When O'Reilly's St. Louis Blues meet the Buffalo Sabres for the first time since the team's blockbuster July 1 trade, they'll do it with O'Reilly leading a club that has to be considered one of the NHL's biggest disappointments this season.
The Blues are 14-16-4, stand 13th in the West and are just one point out of the NHL basement. It's not what O'Reilly expected.
O'Reilly has 13 goals and 32 points in 34 games, on pace for career highs in both goals (31) and points (77). He's fourth in the NHL in faceoff percentage (59.4) and victories (461). His Corsi rating of 51.3 percent is the highest it's been in six years and he has a plus-minus rating of plus-3, which is remarkable on a losing team and a huge improvement from his career-worst minus-23 last year in Buffalo.
So what's wrong with the Blues? They fired coach Mike Yeo after 19 games (7-9-3) and replaced him with Craig Berube, getting modest results to date (7-7-1). They've had big injuries, with defensive stalwart Alex Pietrangelo (hand) and forward Robby Fabbri (shoulder) both out at least until early January.
They've gotten just 11 goals, 22 points and a minus-15 rating from star Vladimir Tarasenko ($7.5 million cap hit) and a 7-15-22/-9 season from center Brayden Schenn – who had 28 goals and 70 points last season. Free agent signee Pat Maroon (two goals in 28 games) has been a bust. And the goaltending of Jake Allen and former Sabre Chad Johnson has combined for a goals-against average of 3.20 and save percentage of .895. Johnson was waived and picked up earlier this month by Anaheim.
The Blues struggled out of the gate at 1-4-2, won just two of their first nine games and have been in an uphill climb ever since.
"We all expected more but that happens," O'Reilly said last month prior to a game in Chicago. "We were struggling to find an identity with all the changes but it's slowly coming. ... The start wasn't what we wanted and it's taken a while to feel comfortable.
"We were in so many of these games, had leads and lost them. We didn't have the consistency in games. Bad period here, blow a lead, couple bad shifts there. It wasn't the hockey we needed to win."
O'Reilly is one of three former Sabres on the St. Louis roster. Winger Jordan Nolan, who played for Buffalo last season, has two assists in eight games and defenseman Chris Butler (2008-11) has one goal and one assist in 10 games. The St. Louis native was called up from the minors on Dec. 5.
The Sabres, meanwhile, bring back two pieces from the trade in center Vladimir Sobotka and winger Tage Thompson as well as free agent goalie Carter Hutton, who was signed from the Blues last July. Veteran center Patrik Berglund, a former 20-goal scorer with St. Louis, flamed out in Buffalo and had his contract terminated last week after going AWOL on the Sabres by skipping practices and a flight.
The Sabres have had a terrible time against St. Louis for many years. They're just 3-17-4 against the Blues since 1999, only 1-9-2 in the last 12 meetings and have not won here since a 5-3 victory on Dec. 27, 2009.
Since then, Buffalo is 0-4-2 in the building that used to be known as Scottrade Center and has scored just nine goals in the six games. The Sabres suffered a 3-2 overtime loss here last season on a Tarasenko goal.
While Allen has struggled mightily this season in the St. Louis net, he's been an ace in his career against the Sabres (5-1, 1.47/.943) in six career starts.
The players' collective bargaining agreement prohibits games or travel on Dec. 26, so the Sabres will take a rare game day morning flight here on Thursday and head right to the arena for a pregame skate.
They ended the pre-Christmas portion of their schedule with four players on the injured list and winger Jason Pominville, who has missed three games with what's believed to be a concussion after colliding with teammate Rasmus Ristolainen, seems to be the closest to returning.
Scott Wilson (ankle surgery) has been skating with the team but has yet to have a full practice. Ditto for Nathan Beaulieu (lower body). Casey Nelson (upper body) remains out on a week-to-week basis.