Let’s get one thing straight. Ryan O’Reilly is not channeling his inner Joe Namath or Mark Messier or even Daniel Alfredsson here. But months after basically saying he was a beaten down man with the Buffalo Sabres, he is willing to predict that his new team is on the precipice of something special.
“A Stanley Cup is possible,” O’Reilly said earlier this week at the BioSteel Pro Hockey Camp in Toronto. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely possible.”
O’Reilly’s new lease on life began the day after he got married, when the Sabres dealt him to the St. Louis Blues July 1, which was also the first day of free agency. With the addition of O’Reilly, the Blues are one of the more intriguing teams in the NHL entering the season. Will it be enough to end a 51-year Stanley Cup drought that matches the Toronto Maple Leafs for the longest in the league? Well, if you believe that a team needs to be strong down the middle, the Blues certainly have a team on paper that could do it, with a center ice corps that projects to have Brayden Schenn, O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak and 19-year-old rookie Robert Thomas.
Whenever the Blues’ season ends in 2018-19, there’s a pretty good chance O’Reilly won’t be in the same frame of mind as he was when the Sabres stepped off the ice for the last time as the worst team in the NHL. O’Reilly unleashed something of a firestorm when he said he had, “lost the love of the game multiple times,” amid all the losses and said the team, including himself, had come to accept losing.
“I just hated to lose, and just with everything that’s gone on, I kind of had nowhere to go with it,” O’Reilly said after the season. “It was just kind of, ‘Oh, it’s all right. As long as I did some things well, it’s OK. That’s how I kind of fell out of love with it, and I miss that. I want to get back to myself.”
O’Reilly took a fair amount of heat for those comments, as he should have. That’s not exactly what a loyal fan base wants to hear after its team has completely trashed a season, particularly when it comes from a guy who had collected $9 million that season. If O’Reilly could have taken back the words, there’s a good chance he would have. They weren’t twisted or misconstrued or turned into something they weren’t. They were the raw emotional words of a player who was frustrated and probably could have used a few more days to put his thoughts together.
“I think it got spun a lot worse than it actually came out,” O’Reilly said. “I remember seeing the headlines and it was like, ‘It’s not actually what I was trying to say.’ I just said the reason I don’t think I played the best hockey I could is we were losing and, as I said, I felt like I didn’t want to come in and come to the rink. It was tough. You still love what you do and there’s no better feeling than playing a hockey game. It’s the best job in the world, but just at times during the season, it was draining. You don’t want to think about the game because it’s not going well and it took a toll at different times in the year. Winning is fun. Losing is not fun at all.”
O’Reilly will be leaned on heavily by the Blues to provide what they need to win more games. In the middle of December last season, the Blues were neck-and-neck with the Tampa Bay Lightning for first overall, but ended up missing the playoffs by one point. O’Reilly’s usual superior two-way play should be a boon to the Blues, but just as much will rely on whether or not players such as Jaden Schwartz and Robby Fabbri can stay healthy and, most importantly, what kind of goaltending they get from Jake Allen and backup Chad Johnson.
“I think it’s great to have (our depth at center),” O’Reilly said. “I think we can compete with anyone. (Schenn and Bozak) are highly skilled players, strong two-way guys that teams look at and they know it’s not going to be an easy night.”