When examining the greatness of Ryan O’Reilly‘s season as a St. Louis Blue, you have to pick your moments. Was it the moment that he slid the puck into an empty net for his third goal of the day, giving the Blues a much-needed 5-3 win over the Colorado Avalanche? Or was it the moment in that same April game against the Avs where he basically willed himself to a goal — a timely goal that helped bring the reeling Blues back from a 1-0 deficit in that nationally televised game.
Or would the moment be when he went all Broadway Joe Namath and all but guaranteed his Blues would end the Avalanche’s storybook season? (For those who live in caves, a spoiler alert: they didn’t). Was it the moment he called his series “pathetic” in that first-round playoff exit? (‘Blues’ Ryan O’Reilly dubs his series “pretty pathetic,” says Avalanche “clearly the better team,” The Denver Post, 5/23/21)
Whatever the moment is, O’Reilly is one of only a handful of Blues who was both reliable and productive all season. He consistently came up big when the team needed it most, it seemed. “In a season filled with inconsistencies, Ryan O’Reilly has been the one consistent on the St. Louis Blues. When he’s in the lineup things happen,” The Hockey Writers wrote in April 2021.
“Take the second game in their three-game series against the Minnesota Wild (on April 10) in St. Louis, a 3-2 overtime win. O’Reilly was the quarterback in the Blues’ final game-winning stretch down the ice in the waning seconds of overtime. He wrapped around the goal and flicked the puck high over a stunned Cam Talbot for their third straight win after suffering seven straight losses until last week,” THW reported.
Here, we take a look back at his 2020-21 season, his first as captain of the Blues.
What Went Right
In the offseason, fans asked how St. Louis would ever survive the loss of Alex Pietrangelo’s leadership? He was the Blues’ captain, a top draft pick of the team whose talent was developed and nurtured in their farm system. He unceremoniously walked off to the desert and into the bright lights of Las Vegas. That left the Blues not only with a huge hole on defense, but it left the team with a huge void in their team leadership.
Enter O’Reilly. He was head coach Craig Berube’s perfect choice for captain and some might argue it was his only choice. “Coach Craig Berube made O’Reilly the franchise’s 23rd captain on December 23, 2020, following Pietrangelo (four seasons as captain), David Backes (five seasons as captain), Eric Brewer (four seasons) and Hall of Famers Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis,” THW reported in April.
“Ryan’s work ethic on and off the ice, and his commitment day-in and day-out is second to none,” Berube said in a statement released by the team. (‘Ryan O’Reilly named 23rd captain in St. Louis Blues history,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12/23/20) “He leads by example with how hard he works during practices and our games, and he relays the right message from our coaching staff to our entire team.”
“The desire to become a leader came at an early age for the boys (Ryan and brother Cal), and each would go on to wear the (captain’s) letter for many teams during his amateur and professional career — including, for Ryan, in the NHL after becoming the 23rd captain of the Blues in December,” wrote Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic. (‘The passion and pain of being Ryan O’Reilly: The Blues captain can’t stop caring — ‘I think that’s who I am,’ The Athletic, 4/27/21)
“He definitely always had one on his jersey,” his brother Cal, who is five years older, told The Athletic. “From the time he was a young kid, he’s always been a guy that other players on the team would look up to — not just because he was a really good player but because he wears his heart on his sleeve and he wants to win so bad.”
From Leader to Captain
From being an elite youth player to becoming an elite pro player, O’Reilly had kept his grinder image intact. Statistically, he was a solid performer on the ice for St. Louis since Game 1. Playing in all 56 games, the captain led the team in goals with 24 and was second on the team in points (54) behind David Perron (58 points). O’Reilly was a plus-26 while averaging 20:45 of ice time this season.
“Big third period for him,” Berube told Bally Sports Midwest on April 29 following the Blues’ 5-4 overtime win over the Minnesota Wild at Excel Center. “He just comes up big at big times. You know, the power play goal, the overtime (goal).”
That overtime goal by O’Reilly helped St. Louis win its fourth game in a row. This was an important goal in how the season would develop. The Blues won that game. Even though they finished the season with just four more wins in games against the Wild, the Vegas Golden Knights, and the Anaheim Ducks, it was just enough.
A total collapse by the Arizona Coyotes in the season’s final stretch assured the Blues the fourth and final playoff spot in the West. However, the Blues lost all four games in the opening round to the Avalanche.
Putting The Team On His Back
To his credit, O’Reilly took the team upon his back before Game 1 of the playoffs, inciting the Blues fanbase by all but guaranteeing a series win against the upstart Avalanche. The Blues barely showed up in the series, and when they did, they were clearly overmatched. The Blues could not manage to get past Colorado’s deadly combination of speed and the team’s sheer brute strength.
The Avalanche, the team that signed him to an entry-level NHL contract, made O’Reilly eat his words. The Blues played without Perron, defenseman Jake Walman, Vince Dunn and suffered setbacks when Robert Bortuzzo took a Tyson Jost elbow to the face and suffered a fractured orbital bone. He was lost for the series, as was Justin Faulk, who took a shot from Nazem Kadri. Those losses were too much for the Blues, and O’Reilly, to shoulder. They went out with a whimper. Still, many of his fans applauded the 30-year-old Ontario-native for offering much-needed energy, locker room leadership, and Don Quixote-esque bravado that is more suited for a recent Stanley Cup champion.
His 24 tallies were huge for the goal-starved Blues this year. It was the second time in his career he had scored as many goals. In 2013-14 and in 2018-19, he netted 28 goals for the Avalanche and Blues, respectively. He’s had two hat tricks this season; the first in a 9-1 rout of Minnesota on April 9, and then again on April 24 when he scored three against Colorado. He had a total of four game-winning goals for the Blues this season.
His final goal of the regular season was indicative of the passion O’Reilly brings. It was a first-period, shorthanded goal against the Golden Knights on May 7 — in what eventually became a 4-3 Vegas victory.
What Went Wrong
Specific to O’Reilly, there isn’t much to pick apart. He showed up every game, playing the full complement of 56 regular-season games, then the four postseason games in 2020-21.
A Lady Byng Memorial Trophy winner in 2013 with Colorado, O’Reilly gained a whole new cult following when he came to St. Louis as he helped lead the Blues to their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2019. The three-time All-Star would win the Conn Smythe Trophy that season as well.
Those are lofty standards to live by for any player not named Sidney Crosby, for example. As captain, there were times when the Blues seemed to suffer from some hidden, internal whisper campaigns about unhappiness with certain stars. The stats play that theory out, as several Blues stars had dismal seasons. At one point, Berube publicly tossed shade at high-priced free agent signing Mike Hoffman by sending him to the press box as a healthy scratch.
As captain, why that situation ever got out of the room is beyond many. It is difficult to lay the blame on O’Reilly, for he is just one veteran in a veteran-laden locker room. But, as the team captain, he has stepped forward in tough times, when the team had lost eight in a row and answered every Zoom question. He never backed down from how the team was playing, and in a true captain’s fashion, carried the blame for this underperforming, and underwhelming, powerhouse team St. Louis had built.
Much like others in leadership positions with the Blues, they take on those positions knowing they will never fully get the credit they deserve. Nor will they ever be properly recognized for the mini-miracles they do to keep a team of scoundrels from killing each other in locker rooms. O’Reilly, being the leader, would surely deflect blame from anyone else in the organization and shoulder it himself.
If there is any fault with him it might be his willingness to die on hills he never created.
“Who am I to be up there singling guys out?” O’Reilly told The Athletic. “If I’m going to do that, I’m going to do it with that player face-to-face. I don’t want to be up there having another player worried about what I said. I’d rather him hear it from me directly. I have no problem taking responsibility in those situations. I feel growing up, and the leaders I’ve seen, that’s what leaders do. I know it can be a bit redundant at times, but I can only control myself and I should be responsible for that.”
A Clutch Performer
In that 5-3 win over Colorado on April 24, the team found itself down 2-0 to the Avalanche just 3:01 into the game. “After the second goal, O’Reilly shot the dead puck into the corner of the rink in frustration, followed by an obscenity,” wrote Rutherford in The Athletic. “You try to move on, he explains, but sometimes it’s OK to not let it go — to be intensely hard on yourself,” Rutherford wrote of the poignant scene.
“That’s a great example,” O’Reilly told The Athletic. “I make a mistake on the second goal and was frustrated coming back to the bench. But it helps me realize, ‘OK, I’m upset, I’m pissed off, and it’s time to engage.’ When I play my best hockey, my emotions are there. I get so frustrated when things aren’t going well, but that frustration is needed. To be upset, that doesn’t need to happen, but it’s part of the process.”
O’Reilly had tied the game before the end of the first period, and later completed his second hat trick of the season.
O’Reilly didn’t fail his team. His team basically failed him. He was especially hard on himself as the Avalanche dashed St. Louis’ Stanley Cup hopes this year.
“I’m very disappointed with myself. It was pretty pathetic. I didn’t really do much this series and especially against that top line,” O’Reilly told The Denver Post. “They’re a very good line (Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanan). Obviously, they’re going to get chances and make plays. I had the opportunity early to see a lot of that line and play them harder and I didn’t do my job and if I’m not going my job you can’t expect anyone else to do theirs.”
People Say Things…
As for his bold prediction? He walked it back quickly after the Blues were officially eliminated. “O’Reilly was wrong, and he admitted it after Game 4,” The Denver Post reported.
“I thought we would have been able to tilt the ice a bit more and take the momentum back,” he told The Post. “Obviously, with that team with the way they play, they’re going to have momentum at times but we sure didn’t grab it back like we needed to and sustain pressure. We were sporadic. It wasn’t consistent. You clearly see what happens. They dominated us. Simple as that.”
O’Reilly was a beast in the faceoff circle for the Blues this year. He won 703 faceoffs, lost 493, for a 58.8 faceoff win percentage. He was 13th in goals in the NHL last season, tied with Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho, Vegas’ Max Pacioretty, New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad, and Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin.
O’Reilly finished 19th in the league in points (54) behind Chicago Blackhawks’ Alex DeBrincat (56). Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid led the league in points with 105 this season. O’Reilly notched his 100th assist in a Blues sweater in a 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 23, 2021.
Final Grade – Ryan O’Reilly: A-
As you look at O’Reilly’s track record and compare it to the meager results he saw this year personally, it is difficult to let the “Red Pen of Correction” flow. He did just about everything right from Day 1. He said all of the right things in the media. He participated in all the right community events. He threw out first pitches. He even wore a stylish suburban sombrero to the Blues’ Stanley Cup parade in 2019. Why, we’re not sure. He definitely made the photo.
He was the face of the franchise. If he had but one job, it was to make people say, Alex who?
To that point, he did just that. While dealing with a tool shed of broken, beat-up, odd-shaped parts, he kept the team together and — along with goalie Jordan Binnington — were the voice of reason amid the stormy 2020-21 season. As the waters got choppier, and the pressure to not only win, but to definitely not lose got tighter as the season wore on, O’Reilly stood tall and did what he could to right this wayward ship. For that, I have to give him an A. Because he was unable to mold this madcap crew into any kind of competitive bunch in time for the playoffs — a series in which he didn’t show up himself much — the minus comes into play.
There is not much more anyone could have asked of Ryan O’Reilly.
The Blues are committed to O’Reilly until the 2022-23 season. According to Capfriendly.com, the Blues will pay him an a base salary of $1 million and a signing bonus of $5 million, while carrying a cap hit of $7.5 million. This could be a bargain, considering teams are paying top-dollar for free agent talents half as productive as him.
How effective he can be as captain moving forward remains to be seen. The Blues are faced with several interesting roster decisions, like whether or not to re-sign Jaden Schwartz and Tyler Bozak. What to do with free agent sniper Hoffman, who helped breathe life into St. Louis’ listless power play? What will become of teammate Vladimir Tarasenko, once an elite talent like O’Reilly, who has been the subject of criticism for his slow return from two major surgeries?
Will Jordan Kyrou continue to find his scoring touch? Brayden Schenn carries a lot of talent, but he also carries a lot of salary. He was largely ineffective this season. O’Reilly can only work with what he is given. If general manager Doug Armstrong makes good decisions on players to bring in, and those to ship out, O’Reilly will surely look like a genius. If the chess game goes left and the Blues stay right, then fans may start seeing the ugly side of O’Reilly real quick.
Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1