After several seasons of rumors and rumblings, the Colorado Avalanche finally traded Ryan O’Reilly this past June. The Buffalo Sabres moved Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, J.T. Compher and a second-round pick in the 2015 draft to secure the center’s services. Buffalo then handed O’Reilly a seven-year extension worth $52.5 million — a yearly cap hit of $7.5 million.
Pundits were quick to point out that he’d be making more than John Tavares and opined about how strange the structure of his contract is. Just look at the responses to Elliotte Friedman tweet about O’Reilly’s AAV from June for some proof.
Do these fans make represent a majority of the NHL at large? Absolutely not, but there were plenty of people asking tough questions about this contract when it was signed. O’Reilly came into 2015-16 with a lot to prove, and so far he has given the Sabres their money’s worth. Which is saying a lot since his salary is $11 million this year alone — $10 million of which was a signing bonus.
Ryan O'Reilly yearly salary is $1 mill. Bonus on July 1st as follows.
He does not have a NMC.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) July 3, 2015
When you look back at posts from this summer, some analysts seemed to get hung up on O’Reilly’s raw point production. If you examine the forward’s numbers, he doesn’t look like a player that is worth $52.5 million. He’s never scored 30 goals and notched a total of 119 points over his last two seasons combined (162 games played).
Overall during his time in Colorado, O’Reilly was a 0.58 point-per-game producer. That isn’t bad by any stretch, but it’s tough to sell that number as “elite.” O’Reilly has been producing at a high level since the current season started though.
He’s on pace for 28 goals and a career-high 72 points. He’s picked up points in eight of his last nine contests and has played less than 20 minutes just three times in 32 games.
What is astonishing is that O’Reilly is pushing toward these new heights while carrying a career-low on-ice shooting percentage. His 28 points is still good for 19th overall, and he’s done that while playing against the opposition’s top lines every night. The former second-round pick is also helping Sam Reinhart develop as a wing, and the 20-year-old has six points in his last nine contests.
The Sabres were struggling at the end of November. They were on a six-game losing streak heading into their Nov. 27 date with the Carolina Hurricanes. At that point Dan Bylsma placed Reinhart on O’Reilly’s right side and the two appeared to click. It took them a few games to really get going, but they’ve been dynamite in December.
This is a large part of what O’Reilly brings to the table — why he’s worth his $7.5 million cap hit. He has an innate and measurable ability to make his linemates better players. Reinhart isn’t some scrub who O’Reilly has been forced to cart around in all three zones, but he hadn’t settled into his game before slotting in on the top line either.
When he was in Colorado, the Avalanche didn’t aggressively try to get O’Reilly the best linemates possible. He spent a lot of time skating with players like an aging Milan Hejduk, which makes his point totals with that organization even more impressive. Now that he gets regular shifts with wings like Evander Kane and Reinhart, we should see a bit of an uptick in O’Reilly’s overall production — much like we have so far this season.
O’Reilly has also helped the Sabres in the faceoff circle, where they got blitzed last year. They were the worst faceoff team in the league, winning just 44.9 percent of their draws. The addition of O’Reilly and a nice bump from Jack Eichel have propelled the Sabres all the way to 12th in faceoffs in 2015-16. No center in the NHL has won more draws and he’s winning close to 60 percent of all of his faceoffs.
Still not convinced that the 24-year-old is worth what Buffalo is paying him? Hold up, because we’re not quite done yet.
So far we’ve looked at the direct impact O’Reilly has had from a numbers standpoint, but when you’re making this kind of money, there are some off-ice expectations as well. Teams look to their most well paid players to be leaders in the locker room, and it sounds like O’Reilly is taking that role seriously. That has to be reassuring to some, since three rough RFA negotiations in Colorado left fans to wonder about what kind of person O’Reilly is.
Whether that’s fair or not is another discussion entirely, but he’s doing the little things right in Buffalo.
On Dec. 7, the Sabres took a 5-2 loss against the Vancouver Canucks. After scoring first, they allowed three consecutive goals and trailed 3-1 when Bylsma called a time out in the second period. It wasn’t the coach that took the floor at that point. It was O’Reilly, who gathered the team around him and delivered a pep talk.
The Sabres still lost, but it was an important moment for both the player and team. O’Reilly is going to be a centerpiece for this organization — barring an odd fallout, since he doesn’t have any trade protection — for the next six seasons. By then the Sabres hope to be contending, so developing strong relationships now is a must.
If there was a list of boxes for O’Reilly to check before the season started, he’s checked one of them. He’s proven that he can be a cornerstone player for the Sabres, and is slowly making his contract look better as the season wears on.