The St. Louis Blues are Stanley Cup champions, and there are dozens of stories to be told. However, few journeys are as remarkable as the one Ryan O’Reilly has been on in the past year.
Just 14 months ago, O’Reilly was the source of abundant criticism in his final days with the Buffalo Sabres, after he made comments about the losing culture there. Wednesday night, he became a Stanley Cup Champion and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs.
In between, there was a marriage, a lopsided trade, an all-star selection, and a career season. It is just one of the Blues’ many incredible stories, but it’s almost too absurd to believe.
O’Reilly’s “Love of the Game”
When the Sabres acquired O’Reilly in 2015, he was expected to be the centerpiece of their future; however, the marriage was rocky from the beginning. O’Reilly never quite fit the culture in Buffalo, and the team refused to make him their captain after the departure of Brian Gionta, choosing instead to wait to anoint Jack Eichel.
Following the Sabres’ disastrous 2017-18 campaign, O’Reilly was not shy about how he felt. “Yeah, it’s disappointing. It’s sad,” he said. “I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times, and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too.”
Those comments, particularly his words about losing his love of the game, were seen as an admission of defeat from media both in Buffalo and around the country. O’Reilly, who had always been treated as something of an outsider in the NHL, was made the scapegoat for what had gone wrong with the Sabres. It was clear that he was on his way out.
The Blues Trade for O’Reilly
With his relationship to his team damaged beyond repair, and a $7.5 million signing bonus coming fast, the Sabres were desperate to trade their star center. The Blues were happy to swoop in and take advantage of the situation, which they did by trading for O’Reilly late on July 1, one day after his wedding.
St. Louis surrendered a number of pieces to land their number one center. They gave up longtime Blues Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, along with highly-rated prospect Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and 2021 second-rounder.
Though the departures of Sobotka and Berglund gave the Blues the salary flexibility to make the deal, it seemed like a high price to pay for an embattled forward. Sabres fans were happy to get two depth forwards, a top prospect, and a first-round pick. A year later, it looks like one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory.
O’Reilly’s Amazing Season
Whether it was his new surroundings in St. Louis or a renewed attitude, O’Reilly immediately looked like a different player in St. Louis. He posted a career year, collecting 77 points (compared with a previous high of 64 in 2013-14), and was a plus-22 on the season. Despite his reputation for being a defensive forward, it was the first time he posted a positive plus-minus since his rookie campaign. The voters selected him as a Selke Trophy finalist for his effort.
The other side of the trade was not as pretty a picture. Berglund never got off the ground in Buffalo. He played 23 games and collected four points before departing under circumstances that are still shrouded in some mystery. Sobotka wasn’t much better, with 13 points and a minus-20 in 69 games.
As for the future aspects of the trade, Thompson did not develop much in his first year with the Sabres. He had just 12 points in 65 games and was minus-22. And since the Blues won the Stanley Cup, the first round pick that the Sabres received is the 31st pick in the draft. While that is still a valuable commodity, its value was minimized by the Blues’ playoff success; success which was fueled by none other than O’Reilly himself.
Conn Smythe for O’Reilly
Though it took him a while to get going in the playoffs, by the end of the postseason, O’Reilly had made himself the Blues’ most valuable player yet again. This he did despite playing with a cracked rib for the final three series.
He finished the playoffs tied with Brad Marchand for the lead in points, with 23. In the Stanley Cup Final, he scored a point in six straight games, something only Mark Messier had ever done before. He also scored one goal in each of the final four games, a streak last accomplished by Wayne Gretzky.
Those two feats were enough to convince voters that he should be awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player of the playoffs. While there was some argument for rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, no one can question O’Reilly’s playoff accomplishments. It was the perfect ending to an incredible year, one of the starkest turnarounds in NHL history.