ST. LOUIS – Ryan O'Reilly doesn't feel down on his luck. Not for a second.
After spending three mostly losing seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, the veteran center was traded to the St. Louis Blues on July 1 in what seemed to be an escape from NHL purgatory. It hasn't worked out that way.
The Sabres had just finished 31st in the NHL, last in the league for the third time in five years. Meanwhile, the Blues were coming off a 94-point season that saw them miss the playoffs on the last day of the schedule but was looked at largely as a blip.
After all, St. Louis was averaging 105 points over the previous six seasons, and O'Reilly was among several new additions talking Stanley Cup during a summer fan gathering here at Ballpark Village across from Busch Stadium. But when O'Reilly meets the Sabres wearing the iconic Blue Note for the first time here Thursday night, the scenario was not what he envisioned.
The Blues won just two of their first nine games, fired coach Mike Yeo in mid-November and are now chasing the season. Almost hopelessly so, as they sit 13th in the Western Conference. The Sabres, meanwhile, are one of the league's biggest surprises and came off the Christmas break tied for sixth overall and third in the Atlantic Division.
"With new faces, we struggled to have consistency but we're slowly working through it," O'Reilly said prior to the teams' meeting in Enterprise Center. "Guys are working so hard for each other and we're starting to build something. We're feeling better about our game, coming closer and excited going forward."
With 13 goals and 32 points in 34 games, O'Reilly has easily been the Blues' best player, like he was lots of the time in Buffalo. But unless something drastically changes, he's going to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year and the eighth time in his 10 NHL seasons.
"I'm a guy that plays big minutes. I think I have a very big impact on that," O'Reilly said. "The start wasn't good but going forward I have to be a big piece of this, get out of my comfort zone and find new ways to grow my game and help turn this thing around. Losing stinks. It's all about winning. The best times I've had on my career have been on winning teams, winning stretches. Those are times you live for."
The Blues entered play Thursday 4-2 in their last six games and coming off an impressive 3-1 win Saturday at Pacific Division-leading Calgary, avenging a 7-2 home loss to the Flames six days earlier. They were sixth in the Central Division and seven points behind Edmonton for the last wild-card slot, although they held two games in hand on the Oilers.
"It's slowly starting to turn around for us," O'Reilly said. "It's a great group of guys, great city and I'm definitely happy here. I just want to win a lot more games and I think we're on our way to. [The Calgary game] was a great example, a consistent game with just a few dips. We played the right way throughout it. We didn't give them much. We played the top, key guys physical, making it tough on them. And that has to be the staple here."
"Ryan is a really good two-way player who gives you everything he's got every night," said Blues interim coach Craig Berube. "From an effort standpoint, faceoffs, power play, penalty kill, he's in every situation for us."
O'Reilly was traded on July 1 after insisting he did not want to be moved. His infamous locker cleanout day interview where he said he had lost his passion for the game was apparently a tipping point for GM Jason Botterill, but O'Reilly said he's not upset with the deal.
"After that season, a rough season like that, you expect things are going to happen," he said. "At the time, you want to be there, be part of the solution. But I'm not upset with the way things happened. I like it here. ... I think we can do great things here. I still wish Buffalo the best.
"It's a great town. I'm definitely a Bills fan, that's for sure. It was a good place to play hockey. It was a great experience and I have some great friends. I didn't know much about it coming in. I was really shocked at how great it was and what a hockey town it was. The results weren't there that we wanted but it was still a great experience."
O'Reilly said he's paid close attention to the breakout season of Sabres center Jack Eichel and said he felt Eichel's time as an MVP-caliber player was coming.
"Knowing how hard he works on his game and the way he practices, you can see every year how he's getting better, impacting the game more and more," O'Reilly said. "It's just natural development. He's put the time in and you see it transferring over now."
"You can learn a lot from him," Eichel said. "He was so good to me when I was starting my career and I wish him nothing but the best. His work ethic definitely rubbed off on a lot of us. It's good to lead the charge after practice, getting extra work in like we did with him.
"It pushes you to want to be better."
O'Reilly said he's also been impressed with the poise of 18-year-old defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and how the addition of Dahlin combined with the maturation of several players on the roster has keyed the Sabres' rise.
"You look at the talent they have, the pieces they've added and they've deserved it," he said. "I've watched a few of their games and they're playing good hockey. I've still got a lot of friends over there so it's nice to see."