Ryan O’Reilly has never been particularly fast. He’s usually good at scoring one or two goals at this point in the season, as well as four or five assists.
But no one expected this: one goal and no assists in nine games. It’s -12 in a plus-minus difference, which on Saturday’s NHL playoff list was the second-worst in the league. (For his colleague Jordan Cairo minus 15).
Inevitably, it’s easily the worst start to his 14-year NHL career with the Blues, Buffalo and Colorado.
By now, the media, fans, and even teammates and coaches in St. Louis are used to hearing O’Reilly take the blame — almost to fault.
However, nothing during his previous four seasons with the Blues came close to his self-criticism earlier this week:
“I’ve been so terrible now. I’m not really doing anything, so I have to fight for my life now. I’m going to fight to survive in this league, I guess. I have to do a lot of leadership wisdom, my own play. If I can do That, just that little thing, I think would make a big difference.”
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O’Reilly made the comments ahead of Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the New York Islands, the team’s sixth straight defeat in regulation. In that Islanders game, he made a key turn that resulted in a green-lighted goal by the Islanders early in the second half.
Starting with coach Craig Beerup, O’Reilly’s support is unwavering.
“He’ll definitely make his way out of it,” Beerup said.
But Birubi added, “He needs help. He needs people who want to work in an offensive zone, have the disc, and do those combative things. Because that’s his game.”
“Listen. (Connor) McDavid has had two games and he’s done well. McDavid is out two games with one assist, and when he got the pass (O’Reilly) he wasn’t even on the ice.
“He knows how to check and do his job. But aggressively, yes, he wants to help the team produce and get out of it. He takes a lot of pressure on himself, because he’s a guy of character and he’s the team leader. It’s not all on him. He’s on everyone. He just has to keep going. Work and find some chemistry with different companions.”
The adjustment period was expected following the departure of David Perron, who now plays for Detroit. But nothing like that.
Pirobi Jordan Cairo has tried as a right winger for O’Reilly in seven of the Blues’ nine matches this season. But it has been proven that this is a mixture of water and oil. When Berube talks about O’Reilly needing buddies willing to work in the attack zone, own a puck, and battle for pucks – none of that came to mind when describing Kyrou, who has his own difficulties getting on the right track.
Berube also tried Jake Neighbors and Noel Acciari on the right wing with O’Reilly. And based on Friday’s training at Centenne Community Ice – the Blues did not train on Saturday – Ivan Barbashev will be the next right winger with O’Reilly when the Blues return to action on Monday in Boston.
“He and Byron had good chemistry together, but that’s just the reality of the work,” said Brayden Sheen. “You have to find new harmony with new buddies or teammates, whatever it is.
“I’m sure people are tough on him at the moment, but no man is ever more demanding of himself than Ryan O’Reilly. He’s going out there, he’s going to play hard, he’s going to lead us. … he’s working hard at his game. He’s going to work through it. There’s obviously a little bit of The hard stretch. It’s my job, and the guys around it, to help.”
Gaining chemistry was a double blow for O’Reilly as left winger Brandon Saad lost only three games in the season due to an upper body injury. Saad returned to training on Friday, and the setback against the Bruins is expected. In the six games without Saad, Shane played the left winger five times on the O’Reilly streak, Barbashev once.
Perspective always helps. Norris Cup winner Cal Makar hasn’t scored in his first nine games of the season (although he has had eight assists). But the Colorado Avalanche haven’t lost six in a row in regulation like the Blues.
O’Reilly is perfect. He’s always one of the first on the ice to practice and among the last to leave. So you know these stings. Complicating matters further, there is a lot more swirling around O’Reilly than just life after DP and finding new chemistry.
Of course, he’s playing the last year of his contract. In recent years, there have been no happy endings for the Blues’ primary owners who didn’t sign a contract extension before their “walking” year. See: Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz, Perron. Complicating matters further is an extremely narrow picture of the team’s salary cap after this season. There is some talk that the cap could raise $3 million or more beyond expectations, which would obviously help get O’Reilly back. But there is nothing official about any increase in the cap, and there may not be a period.
Back on the ice, it’s becoming more and more clear that Robert Thomas is now considered number one for the team. O’Reilly is a skilled team player, but players want minutes. They want to be on the ice. So this is just another mod for the proud player.
Thomas has led the Blues’ strikers on ice time in seven of his nine games – a distinction that in years past has been almost the exclusive domain of O’Reilly. Thomas has an average age of 20:14 icy time, and he leads among the Blues’ strikers. O’Reilly is at 18:25, fourth among the strikers, and about two minutes below his per game average over his previous four seasons in St. Louis.
The shift in ice time is evident in the power game as well, with Thomas getting more work than O’Reilly for the first time in his career: 2:46 a game for Thomas, to 2:00 for O’Reilly.
Finally, Thomas has more confrontations so far this season than O’Reilly – long considered one of the best confrontational entertainers in the NHL. It’s close: Thomas took 157 for O’Reilly 150. But it seems strange to see Thomas fight back against O’Reilly.
Of course, all this can be subject to change over the course of a long season. But these are the early trends.
Once again, the team’s veterans remain confident O’Reilly will come. They’ve seen a lot of it over the years to suggest otherwise.
“He’s really one of the last players you have to worry about,” said defender Robert Portozzo. He has a lot of accountability. He brought a lot of accountability to our group. He has raised the bar for ‘competition’ and the work ethic of our group for many years. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He puts a lot of pressure on himself to be a great leader. He is a great leader.
“Again, he is the last person we want to worry about in terms of correcting the ship. … There is no doubt that he will be able to do it.”
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