NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ryan O’Reilly did not know what to expect.
It was an unfamiliar feeling for someone who has seen and done so much during 14 seasons in the NHL. But once O’Reilly closed the door on returning to Toronto, he plunged into free agency for the first time.
“It’s true what people say — it is a little crazy,” O’Reilly said last week.
Ultimately, O’Reilly landed a four-year, $18 million contract with the Nashville Predators, who, despite missing the playoffs last season, impressed him with their vision for the future under new general manager Barry Trotz. (O’Reilly’s older brother, Cal, who started his career with the Predators and rejoined the organization over the summer, also helped convince Ryan to move south.)
“There were just so many things that were attractive to here,” O’Reilly said, citing new Predators coach Andrew Brunette and the team’s existing leadership group led by captain Roman Josi as examples. “We have something here that if we do things the right way, we’re going to be very competitive.”
Unsurprisingly, O’Reilly’s decision to leave the Maple Leafs reignited discussion about the blinding Toronto spotlight and its effect on players, especially those who are from Ontario. Maple Leafs GM Brad Treliving told reporters in July that “sometimes when you’re from this area, there’s a lot to it.”
“It was and is an amazing place to play,” said O’Reilly, who grew up a couple of hours west of the city. “Just putting on that jersey, you can just feel the love that comes with it, how much pride people take in that jersey. Its hockey’s team. … It was definitely not an easy decision not (to re-sign) there.”
Although O’Reilly did not arrive in Toronto until the stretch run of the season after being traded from the St. Louis Blues, he still was swept up in the hysteria that surrounds the Maple Leafs on a daily basis.
“You could tell everything’s amplified,” O’Reilly said. “I don’t do it often, (but) it was a good thing when I played there that I didn’t turn on the TV much or turn on the radio, because there are (so many outlets) talking about it. … Everything’s covering it, talking about it. Here, it gets a little time on the TV, but it’s not everything. It is more than just a game there.”
Above all, O’Reilly said, the Predators offered him more opportunity than the Maple Leafs could. He is expected to start the season as the first-line centre and, along with former Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn, play a leading role in mentoring the team’s crop of up-and-comers. (Of course, it did not hurt that the Predators offered O’Reilly, who described himself as “an old 32,” more money as well.)
O’Reilly’s time in Toronto was short, but he said he will remember it fondly.
“It’s definitely a treat and a privilege to play for an organization like that,” O’Reilly said. “If it ended up working out, I (would have been) happy there, but I just think this was the decision I wanted to do. My family thought it was better. We’ll see if it’s the right one. You never know, but so far, I’m enjoying it.”