WINNIPEG – Ryan O’Reilly has his finger on the pulse and is one of the most accessible and articulate players in the NHL.
The captain of the St. Louis Blues enjoys talking about the game nearly as much as he enjoys playing it – and that’s saying something.
When O’Reilly and the Blues rolled through Winnipeg last month, the veteran centre shared his thoughts on the Blues fast start, which has quickly evaporated into a six-game losing streakcr.
He also politely answered a few questions about his future from a probing reporter.
So while the fortunes of the Blues may have changed quickly when it comes to those on-ice results, one thing that hasn’t is that O’Reilly is a pending unrestricted free agent in 2023 and that’s a situation many observers – and general managers around the NHL – are going to be watching closely as the season progresses.
Since the trade from the Buffalo Sabres to the Blues in July 2018, O’Reilly has grown into a heart-and-soul piece of the puzzle.
“He’s reliable defensively and he goes against top lines every night and does a great time of checking them, but at the same point he produces,” said Blues head coach Craig Berube. “He’s a good playmaker, he’s got a great stick, we all know that. He’s a good power play guy. So he’s an all-situational guy for us.”
O’Reilly is the type of two-way centre coaches dream of, even if he’s off to a slow start by his lofty standards, with just one goal scored and one point collected through the first nine games.
He’s a natural born leader and he’s a huge part of the identity the Blues have built under general manager Doug Armstrong.
“The way he’s able to lead by example with his effort every single day is something that all young guys should look up to,” said Blues centre Robert Thomas. “He’s the first one on the ice and the last one off. Away from the rink, with how he treats people and all of that stuff. And his on-ice play speaks for itself. It’s pretty remarkable.”
O’Reilly has done it all for the Blues and captured the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2019, when the team overcame the slow start to the season and ended up winning the Stanley Cup, taking on all of the tough matchups along the road to 16 victories.
“It will happen when it happens,” said O’Reilly, asked if he was open to discussions taking place during the season. I don’t need it done by this point. I’ve got so much else to focus on with this group and our team, I like diving into that and just really controlling what I can control. The day-to-day stuff and eventually the contract will take care of itself.
“I don’t really see myself somewhere else. This is where I want to be. I love this group and we have a chance to win here, so I don’t see myself going anywhere anytime soon.”
O’Reilly isn’t the type of guy who is going to spend a bunch of time wondering or worrying what the long-range future could bring either.
“I’m an established player and I feel comfortable in this situation, knowing that I can just focus on the hockey and when it comes time to get something done, we’ll get something done,” said O’Reilly, who also dove into why being a member of the Blues has been such a great fit for him. “Being competitive each year is something that’s very fun and you like being around. Anytime you’re with a group like this that had that identity, still has it and has such a balanced team and balanced roster, there are so many vital pieces here to win, to be able to dive into a role and be able to contribute in that way and be a part of it, it’s exciting.
“When you finally get a taste of winning, you’re constantly chasing it again. It’s something you don’t want to lose. It’s an amazing organization and culture to be around.”
O’Reilly also discussed the heartbreak of pushing the Colorado Avalanche to six games last season in the Central Division final before bowing out to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
“It was frustrating. For how good and dominant (goalie Jordan Binnington) was throughout the playoffs and for that (injury) to happen, it was just disappointing but that’s the game,” said O’Reilly. “Sometimes injuries happen and it’s tough to win. You have to stay healthy. It was tough to swallow because I thought we could have given them a better chance. We could have got that to (Game) 7 and then, who knows?
“Colorado is obviously a great team. They were the best team all year and they definitely deserved to win, but we were right there. It left a sour taste in our mouths, but it made it a lot easier to train when you’re close to a team like that and you know that we are good and we’re going to have a chance again to do something. It’s (about) building and getting better each day.”
Armstrong made a long-term commitment to two younger members of the core this past offseason, inking forwards Jordan Kyrou and Thomas to matching eight-year, $65 million deals – eclipsing the eight-year pact for $60 signed by Vladimir Tarasenko in 2015.
The Blues also signed forward Brayden Schenn and defenceman Colton Parayko to eight-year deals during his tenure, while making long-term commitments to blue-liners Justin Faulk and Torey Krug as well.
All to say that Armstrong isn’t afraid of either term or handing out a big ticket.
History has also shown that Armstrong isn’t afraid of making difficult decisions – and coincidentally, he’s made them with his past two captains, defenceman Alex Pietrangelo and centre David Backes.
Pietrangelo’s deal expired after the 2019-20 season and while an effort was made to keep him in the fold, the fourth-overall pick in the 2008 NHL Draft eventually decided to sign a lucrative deal with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Backes helped the Blues reach the Western Conference final in 2016, then signed a five-year deal worth $30 million with the Boston Bruins as an unrestricted free agent the following summer after he couldn’t come to terms to stick around.
Armstrong also traded popular centre Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets just prior to the NHL trade deadline in 2018 in a move that paved the way to revamp the centre position with O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak later that summer.
All to say that this could go one of three ways.
Armstrong could find the money to keep O’Reilly in the fold, which likely means fellow pending UFA Tarasenko will not be sticking around.
O’Reilly could play out the season and weigh his options, exploring the open market for the first time in his career.
That would both allow O’Reilly to see what else is out there, but that wouldn’t rule out signing with the Blues, either.
The third option, which seems almost unthinkable and still remains unlikely as of right now, could see O’Reilly on the move for future assets if the Blues fortunes don’t improve and if Armstrong doesn’t see a new contract for him in the cards.
The list of impactful centres who are pending UFAs also includes Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, Bo Horvat of the Vancouver Canucks and there are several high-end wingers in that group as well, so things could get very interesting on a number of fronts as this season develops – especially if certain teams fall out of the playoff picture and decide to make an early move.
For the time being, the Blues will be looking to get things back on track as they open a busy week of action that includes games against the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights.
THE FINNISH ADVENTURE
The Colorado Avalanche wrapped up the two-game Global Series with a pair of dominant wins over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In the first game at Nokia Arena, Finnish forward Mikko Rantanen was the star of the show, notching a hat trick and adding an assist.
Blue Jackets winger Patrik Laine also scored a goal in his hometown of Tampere, but his team is off to a 3-9 start and they’ve dropped five consecutive games and have the worst goal-differential in the NHL at minus-25.
The last time Laine got to suit up for games in his home country with the Winnipeg Jets back in 2018, he brought the crowd to its feet by notching a hat trick of his own in the Global Series opener against the Florida Panthers and scoring four goals during the two games.
Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon notched seven assists during the two games and is up to 19 points on the season, which left him tied for fourth in the NHL going into Sunday’s action.
And for those wondering about the slowish start for the Avalanche, the signs of the Stanley Cup hangover appear to be fading as they’ve improved to 6-4-1 on the season and are back within striking distance of the Dallas Stars, who lead the Central Division with 17 points through 12 games.
To say San Jose Sharks defenceman Erik Karlsson is turning back the clock isn’t entirely accurate.
He’s off to a ridiculous start to the season that includes 10 goals and 19 points in just 14 games, while averaging just under 25 minutes of ice time.
The idea of having both Karlsson and Brent Burns on the same D corps was a sound theory but didn’t translate into the type of success former GM Doug Wilson envisioned.
Part of that was related to Karlsson enduring a host of injuries, but now that he’s healthy – and with Burns suiting up for the Carolina Hurricanes – the mobile blue-liner has been driving the Sharks offence.
The last time Karlsson actually notched 10 goals in a season was back in 2016-17 when he was a member of the Ottawa Senators.
As unlikely as it is for Karlsson to maintain a 22.2 shooting percentage, he’s already recorded 45 shots on goal and is riding a five-game point streak that has included six goals and 13 points.
For context, the Sharks have scored 32 goals as a team through those 14 games.
For all of the much-deserved talk about the Norris Trophy candidates like Cale Makar, Roman Josi and Miro Heiskanen in the Central Division, Karlsson is serving notice with a quick start that he’s still got something left in the tank.
• When Stars captain Jamie Benn scored three times in Saturday’s 6-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers, it was the seventh hat trick recorded in November and the 14th of the NHL season. That seems like an extremely high number, but it’s a reminder of just how many skilled players there are in the NHL and that goals can still come in bunches for many.
• Speaking of an extremely high number, Penguins centre Sidney Crosby notched the 900th assist of his NHL career on Saturday in what was his 1,120th NHL game. Only five players reached 900 assists quicker than Crosby: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Adam Oates and Ron Francis. The 35-year-old continues to play at a high level, but his Penguins are off to a disappointing 4-6-2 start to sit near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division standings. Pittsburgh has lost seven consecutive games (0-6-1) after starting 4-0-1.
• The New Jersey Devils are at the opposite end of the spectrum and are one of the early surprises, sitting on top of the Metropolitan Division after sweeping their Western Canadian swing, capped by a 4-3 overtime win over the Calgary Flames on Saturday night. Swedish forward Jesper Bratt leads this emerging group with five goals and 17 points in 12 games.
• Speaking of young and fun teams to watch, the Buffalo Sabres are off to a strong start and centre Tage Thompson had himself a night to remember on Halloween, notching the first six-point night of his NHL career against the Detroit Red Wings. Thompson is tied for the team scoring lead with Rasmus Dahlin and 12 of his 15 points have come during the past five games after chipping in three assists in the first seven.
• Over in the Western Conference, the Vegas Golden Knights continue to set the standard with an 11-2 record after extending their winning streak to six games with a 6-4 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. Winger Jonathan Marchessault picked up his 300th and 301st points as a member of the Golden Knights in Saturday’s game. Marchessault is up to six goals and 10 points in 13 games this season and was recently reunited with William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. When Smith scored the Golden Knights second goal, Marchessault and Karlsson had the assists, marking the 58th time the trio have factored in on a goal together.
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