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COMMENTARY

Trade continues to haunt Sabres as Ryan O'Reilly gets set for Cup final

BOSTON — It all hit a smiling Ryan O'Reilly as he walked into the room in TD Garden. There were reporters and cameras and boom microphones everywhere. It's obviously not the Super Bowl — nothing is — but Stanley Cup Media Day was particularly crowded Sunday in Beantown.

And here he was, holding a prominent seat just over 13 months after the lowest point of his career.

"The ultimate goal is available now," O'Reilly said on the eve of Monday's Cup final opener between his St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins. "We have a chance to do that. I'm blown away. It's tough just not playing. You want to go out there and get it going. It's amazing."

It was a long way from O'Reilly's infamous Sabres locker cleanout chat in KeyBank Center last April that centered around how he had lost his passion for the game. I've never understood the view he had to go based on that alone. Was he supposed to be happy with a 62-point season?

That said, the comments might have raised a flag with some teams. Not with St. Louis General Manager Doug Armstrong, who joked Sunday that his first mistake was not drafting O'Reilly 10 years ago when he was St. Louis' player personnel director.

"When you're part of an organization that's not having success, he was speaking from the heart," Armstrong said. "He was frustrated. He wanted more from himself. And so I've had an opportunity to work with him internationally (on Team Canada's World Championship teams), so I know what the man's made of.

"That didn't play at all into it. That was zero concern for me. When I talked to him on the phone, I could tell he was in the right frame of mind, I didn't have to bring it up."

O'Reilly's first trip to St. Louis to be introduced to fans last July at Ballpark Village near Busch Stadium had him talking Stanley Cup. His first phone call with Armstrong had him thinking it, too.

"I remember talking to him and just saying, 'Thank you for bringing me in and let's go win a Cup,' " O'Reilly said. "I knew the team. I had played with a few guys on the team, looked up to the rest and I was excited. From day one, I thought this was a team that had a chance."

The Sabres, meanwhile, thought they had made a solid 5-for-1 deal, getting Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson and two draft picks that included a first-rounder. They got out from O'Reilly's $7.5 million bonus payment. And his similar cap hit. It turned out they got fleeced, trading a Selke finalist for pennies on the dollar in a deal that has left Jason Botterill's employment as GM shaky at best.

You can't blame Botterill for Berglund quitting and leaving $12 million on the table. And the final outcome is yet to be written. Maybe Thompson becomes a 30-goal scorer. Maybe the first-round draft pick is traded for a quality NHL player for next season. There's still wiggle room for Botterill to make the deal look better, so that's a plus for the Sabres.

A common refrain you hear on social media from Sabres fans is "move on" or "he's gone." It's foolishness. This is a trade that could haunt the franchise for years, leaving a massive hole in the middle that's tough to fill. And if Botterill felt in some cockeyed thinking that he had to ship out O'Reilly to turn the team over to Jack Eichel? Well, another coach got fired.

If you spend years correctly celebrating Chris Gratton for Daniel Briere and decades toasting Stephane Beauregard for Dominik Hasek, you're going to have to hear about O'Reilly getting dumped for Berglund, Sobotka, Thompson et al.

Especially when he's in the Stanley Cup final and is a Selke finalist in the first year. Sorry. We could be less than a year away from it being a major part of Botterill's Buffalo epitaph.

O'Reilly shattered his career high with 77 points and equaled his career high with 28 goals. He went from a minus-23 player to a plus-22. He's the Blues' second-leading scorer in the playoffs with 14 points in 19 games.

O'Reilly never publicly said he wanted out of Buffalo, in fact saying he wanted to be part of the solution when speaking to TSN last May in Copenhagen at the World Championships. His opinion was bolstered by the news the Sabres had won the draft lottery and the right to take Rasmus Dahlin.

The Sabres decided otherwise, which is their prerogative and has prompted plenty of opinions in the hockey world in recent days now that the Blues are here.

"He’s always had amazing passion for the game. He’s an old-school player," NBC analyst Pierre McGuire told me on a network conference call Thursday. "An old-school throwback ... and I understand where Buffalo was going. Ryan clearly wasn’t happy there, the management was trying to change the culture of the dressing room.

"He had made some pretty strong statements about where he thought the organization was trending at that time, so you can understand why they moved him out. It’s a deal that probably will work out for both teams eventually. It’s obviously worked out very well for St. Louis."

Others haven't been as diplomatic on Twitter.

Said former Sabres and ex-Buffalo TV analyst Brad May: "Worst trade in a long time. OReilly is up for the Selke, and Lady Byng. #badtrade #notevenclose #imhappytohaveSabotka? (sic)"

Added longtime NHL defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who played 284 of his 470 games with St. Louis and finished his NHL career with the Sabres in 2015-16 said, "It’s crazy to think that the buffalo sabres traded this guy because he was sick of losing (facepalm emoji). Absolutely love Ryan Oreilly and everything he brings to a team both on and off the ice."

At the start of the World Championships, longtime NHLer Ray Ferraro of TSN said Buffalo was simply impatient and should have let O'Reilly settle down over the summer and get refreshed for a new training camp.

The Sabres, of course, chose another direction. Botterill has repeatedly claimed he was able to trade for Jeff Skinner because O'Reilly was gone, even though the salary cap evidence shows otherwise and the argument will become moot if he fails to re-sign Skinner in the coming weeks.

O'Reilly, meanwhile, is playing for the game's ultimate prize.

"To be in this position now, it's amazing a year ago how different the mindset was," he said. "Being somewhere where you wanted to rebuild and get it going in the right direction but struggling that way. Things changed so quick and next thing you know, we're here now. It's tough to believe."

Of course, the Blues had a long road. They fired coach Mike Yeo in November and were 14 points behind the Sabres in early January as they sat 31st overall. They took off behind rookie goalie Jordan Binnington 4 1/2 months ago and have never stopped.

"There's a certain discipline that it takes to win," O'Reilly said. "When things aren't going well, you have to fight to come together and that's what we did. It takes time. It's not easy. The thing I admired about so many of these guys is that when it's not working, you get together and talk it out."

O'Reilly wasn't going there when I asked if the Sabres failed to get together enough last year — or if they have been too impatient in their rebuild, especially given the rope Armstrong gave the Blues this season.

"It is nice to see the patience he had in us and the confidence he showed to build a team that was good enough to get here and win," he said. "I still think Buffalo has a bright future. There's people there that have great hockey minds and know what they're doing.

"From what I've learned this year, it's so, so tough to win. It's so hard, with so many ups and downs. The big thing for us and why we're here is because we hung in there, kept fighting and stayed even-keeled. You can't get too emotional. You have to trust the team you built."

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