Revisiting the Blues’ Trade for Ryan O’Reilly

On July 1, 2018, the St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres agreed to a trade that sent shockwaves through the National Hockey League. The two teams agreed to send Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis in exchange for Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, a first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. Upon initial review, the deal seemed lopsided and in favor of St. Louis. Nearly four years later, the trade may not be as lopsided as once perceived. 

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To this day, the trade has multiple moving pieces that sway the direction and favor. To understand the perception of both teams and why both fan bases believe they may have come out on the better end, a background and perspective needs to be established for each side of the story.

Blues Perspective

Selected 33rd overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the Colorado Avalanche, O’Reilly quickly became a fan favorite. Fearing that O’Reilly would cost too much money in the long term, he was traded to the Sabres in exchange for defenseman Nikita Zadorov, forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and J.T. Compher, and the No. 31 pick in the draft in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. After three seasons with the Sabres, he appeared in 224 games scoring 65 goals and 176 points. Though he never produced less than 60 points in a single season, a collective record of 93-118-35 over his three seasons in Buffalo left the 27-year-old O’Reilly with a loss of love for the game. 

Ryan O'Reilly, Buffalo Sabres
Ryan O’Reilly, Philadelphia Flyers vs Buffalo Sabres – October 25, 2016 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As he and his fellow Sabres teammates cleaned out their lockers, he was quoted saying: “We’re stuck in this mindset of just being OK with losing. I feel it, too. I think it’s really crept into myself. Over the course of the year, I’ve lost myself a lot, where it’s just kind of get through, just being OK with just not making a mistake. That’s not winning hockey at all, and it’s crept into all of our games. It’s disappointing. It’s sad. I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times.” (from ‘Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly says he lost love of game, lacked mental toughness,’ The Buffalo News, Apr 9, 2018)

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong did not waste much time during the offseason to swoop in and strike a deal for the elite playmaking forward to be the new first-line center of the St. Louis Blues. The trade for O’Reilly, along with the offseason acquisitions of David Perron, Tyler Bozak, and Patrick Maroon brought new forward depth to the franchise and helped to secure the club’s first Stanley Cup. The immediate success of a championship, while also earning a Conn Smythe Award and a Selke Trophy in the first season removed from a struggling franchise made the Blues’ front office look like they made the deal of the century.

Following the departure of long-time captain, Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues named the 29-year-old O’Reilly the 23rd captain in franchise history. His time in St. Louis was one of the most productive of his career. Scoring 97 goals and 269 points in 327 regular-season games, his brilliance in all situations helped the Blues remain Stanley Cup contenders until his last season. 

Despite the love for the team and the city, his captaincy and time with the Blues did not last much longer. With a looming salary cap crunch, an expiring contract, and multiple free agents to sign like Vladimir Tarasenko, Robert Thomas, and Jordan Kyrou, the Blues opted to part ways with both O’Reilly and Tarasenko and re-sign Thomas and Kyrou. On Feb. 17, 2023, St. Louis finalized a three-team trade with The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Minnesota Wild receiving prospect Mikhail Abramov, forward Adam Gaudette, the Leafs’ 2023 first-round pick (Otto Stenberg), the Ottawa Senators’ 2023 third-round pick (Juraj Pekarcik) and Toronto’s 2024 second-round pick. His tenure with the Blues ended with a total of 327 regular season games over five seasons scoring 97 goals and 269 points. He appeared in four postseason runs with a combined 51 games registering 49 points (19 goals, 30 assists). He secured one Stanley Cup, the NHL Conn Smythe Trophy, and the Frank J Selke Trophy all during the 2018-19 championship season.

Sabres Perspective

Viewed as a cornerstone piece to the Sabres franchise, and a pivotal building block in a long-running Sabres rebuild, O’Reilly’s trade was viewed as one that netted quite a haul for the franchise in an attempt to add multiple pieces to their teams’ depth chart. The deal came down to the wire as O’Reilly was owed a contract bonus worth $7.5 million by the team that owned his contract at midnight. If he remained a member of the Sabres the following day, the price to acquire the forward would have been vastly different. “It certainly, to me, changes the dynamic of anything from an asking price or what we’d be looking for from a trade perspective,” Botterill said.

The Blues moved on from long-time forward pieces Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, who combined for over 1,000 regular-season games with the franchise. In Berglund, the Sabres were acquiring a 6-foot-4, middle-six forward that consistently provided an average of 35 points each season, 15 minutes of ice time, and could play on both the power play and penalty kill. Much like his teammate, the 5-foot-11 Sobotka was a player who could perform in all situations and adjust his style of play to fit any of the four forward lines.

While both players were viewed as complementary pieces, the unthinkable happened when Berglund left the Sabres and returned home to Sweden. After refusing to speak on the matter, he finally broke his silence stating that his return home was for the best of his mental health. 

“When you feel as bad as I did, and feel what I feel today… I really feel I’ve made the right decision. Money is the last thing that means something to me right now.” (from ‘Patrik Berglund explains to Swedish newspaper why he left the Sabres’, The Buffalo News, Jan 18, 2019).

Related: Ryan O’Reilly Trade: Who Won?

His one season with the Sabres resulted in only two goals and four points over 23 games, along with an average of 13 minutes of ice time, the lowest of his career. Upon the termination of Berglund’s contract, he lost $12.5 million.

The second established NHL forwarded acquired in the trade, Sobotka remained with the club for two seasons. His first season resulted in only five goals, 13 points, and a minus-20 rating, the lowest production since his 2009-10 season with the Boston Bruins. Looking for a bounceback during his second season with the club, Sobotka suffered a knee injury in the first period of a Global Series game with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The injury would result in surgery on his right knee and would be his last game in the NHL to date.

The last NHL-ready player acquired in the trade was the 6-foot-7 forward, Tage Thompson. Drafted 26th overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Thompson never secured a place in the St. Louis lineup. Making his NHL debut during the 2017-18 season, he appeared in 41 games scoring three goals and nine points with a minus-nine rating. A change of scenery, however, did not result in instant success for Thompson. Struggling to find offensive success and a consistent role in the Sabres organization, he was shuffled between both the NHL and the American Hockey League (AHL) from 2018 until 2020.

Finally seeing the growth and maturity needed, a switch to his natural center position occurred during the 2021-22 season. The result is still in the making but is quickly paying dividends for the Sabres with Thompson scoring a career-high 33 goals and 59 points over 71 games. His production and leadership within the Sabres organization resulted in a commitment to one another as he agreed to remain a member of the franchise by signing a seven-year, $50 million contract on Aug 30, 2022.

The final pieces of the O’Reilly blockbuster trade were the two draft picks sent to the Sabres. With the 31st overall selection in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Buffalo selected defenseman Ryan Johnson. Finishing his third season with the University of Minnesota, he scored a career-high three goals and 19 points over 39 games. Though he lacks a flashy offensive upside, Johnson still has the potential to be a reliable number three or four defenseman for the Sabres at the peak of his career.

St. Louis’ 2021 second-round draft pick was traded by the Sabres to the Vegas Golden Knights in the acquisition of defenseman Colin Miller on June 28, 2019. Miller played three seasons with the Sabres and is currently in the Devils system.

While the jury remains out on the trade, the tides are consistently changing on the true winner of the deal. The Blues were able to secure their Stanley Cup and a franchise cornerstone in O’Reilly before ultimately moving him. Many fans in St. Louis wanted him to remain a member of the organization for life but also understood the team could not afford him long-term and pay younger players as well. The Sabres continue to build around Thompson but have yet to secure any playoff success. O’Reilly played his part with the organization and will remain a legend in the city of St. Louis forever because of it. Time will tell if Thompson has the same lasting effect in the city of Buffalo when his time with the organization comes to a close.