Ryan O’Reilly: Blues’ Best Player?

The St. Louis Blues collected a 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night, thanks mostly to Ryan O’Reilly’s first career hat trick. It was the latest reminder of the incredible player the Blues got in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres back in July, a player who is now far and away the team leader in points, with 19 points (7 G, 12 A) in 13 games.

O’Reilly brings a unique combination of skills that no other player on the team possesses, but is it possible that he has already established himself as the Blues’ best player? There is certainly an argument, and perhaps a strong one, that such is the case.  Let’s take a deeper dive into the Blues to see if O’Reilly sits at the top of the list.

Superstar: Vladimir Tarasenko

Any conversation about the Blues’ best player has to start with Vladimir Tarasenko. He is the team’s most elite goal scorer, and their highest profile player by far in terms of league reputation. He even won a fan vote to grace the cover of EA Sports’ NHL 17 video game. He’s a popular player, and for good reason: he loves the city, and they love him.

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
Vladimir Tarasenko. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Tarsenko’s skills need no introduction. He’s a strong, physical goal scorer in the mold of fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin, with that unique combination of physicality and off-the-charts scoring ability. Tarasenko is tied with Patrick Kane for second in the league in goals since 2015-16, trailing only Ovechkin, scoring 118 in that time. He is also an underrated playmaker, capable of making terrific passes, like the one he made to set up O’Reilly’s first goal Tuesday night.

So what is Tarasenko’s game lacking? There isn’t a lot wrong, but he is not a particularly strong defensive forward. He is a minus-7 on the season, and though he did receive one fifth place vote for the Selke Trophy last season, it is certainly the area of his game that needs the most improvement. Beyond that, Tarasenko’s biggest flaw is inconsistency. He still can go through long scoring draughts, during which his own frustration causes his overall play to suffer. It is the one thing that prevents him from being one of the league’s truly elite players, and perhaps the area where O’Reilly has the biggest leg up.

Hidden Gem: Jaden Schwartz

Even last year, though, there were questions as to whether Tarasenko was the Blues’ best player. That was primarily due to the stellar play of Jaden Schwartz, who was voted by the NHLPA as the league’s second most underrated player last season, behind only Nicklas Backstrom. Schwartz is a more rounded player than Tarasenko, and a much better defensive forward than most of his peers.

Jaden Schwartz
Jaden Schwartz (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Schwartz isn’t weak offensively, either. Last year, after finding great chemistry with fellow Saskatchewan native Brayden Schenn, he was one of the offensive stars of the season, and the team began to fall apart when he was injured. He was on pace for 78 points last year had he played a full season.

But that is one of the biggest marks against Schwartz: he seems to be injury prone. It’s hard to know whether that has anything to do with him, or whether it’s a series of unfortunate accidents, but whatever the case, Schwartz has never played an 82 game season, and has missed significant time two of the last three years. Already in 2018-19 he has missed a few games. If Schwartz was able to build momentum through a full season, he would have a stronger case for the Blues’ best player, but as it is, he lags behind more durable candidates.

The Cornerstone: Alex Pietrangelo

While Blues’ captain Alex Pietrangelo has not performed especially well early in this season, it would be difficult to argue that he isn’t one of the Blues’ most important players. Not only is he the team captain, but he’s the kind of cornerstone defenseman many teams salivate over. In recent seasons, he has been a stalwart defender who has received consideration for the Norris Trophy, and he’s been in the top ten in time-on-ice each of the last three seasons.

Alex Pietrangelo St. Louis Blues
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues, January 6, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The only thing lacking in Pietrangelo’s game is offensive prowess. He isn’t a zero in the offensive zone, but he isn’t the kind of high danger threat that more recognized defensemen like Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Victor Hedman are. He did have a career high 54 points in the 2017-18 season, but it wasn’t enough to keep pace with the league’s best defensemen. He isn’t an ideal power play quarterback, either.

These aren’t big enough concerns to truly diminish his value to the Blues. And while fans may worry about his downturn this season, that could have more to do with playing with the struggling Jay Bouwmeester than anything. Pietrangelo is an incredibly valuable player for the Blues, but can he match O’Reilly’s output? Let’s take a look.

The Newcomer: Ryan O’Reilly

O’Reilly, for his part, takes the best qualities of all of these players and mixes them into one package. He isn’t an elite scorer like Tarasenko is, but he’s had potent offensive output most of his career, and if his 19 points in 13 games is anything like his final season-long pace, it will be a career offensive year for O’Reilly.

As for Schwartz, as good of a defensive forward as he may be, O’Reilly is better. He’s received votes for the Selke Trophy each of the last eight seasons, and would be a top penalty killer on any team. He is also legendarily disciplined: he’s had two different seasons where he has recorded only one minor penalty, and he’s played 80-plus games in both. His discipline has garnered him Lady Byng votes in seven seasons, including one win in 2013-14 and a second place finish last season.

St. Louis Blues Ryan O'Reilly
St. Louis Blues center Ryan O’Reilly (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

O’Reilly also brings a level of determination that may outpace any of the players we’ve discussed. He plays a committed game, and offers the kind of on-ice leadership that even the captain Pietrangelo is sometimes criticized as lacking. Overall, no facet of O’Reilly’s game seems substandard. If there is a weakness, it might be his skating, but what he lacks in speed and agility, he makes up for with intelligence and effort.

The Verdict

The Blues are blessed with a number of very good players, particularly on offense. Vladimir Tarasenko is a unique scoring talent of a kind that is rare in the NHL. Jaden Schwartz is a Swiss army knife who can do it all, and would be more widely celebrated but for playing behind Tarasenko and his penchant for injury. Alex Pietrangelo is a cornerstone defenseman, to be sure, and even with his struggles this season in mind, he’s one of the team’s most irreplaceable players.

But Ryan O’Reilly brings a mixture of talents that could exceed all of these players. Whether he is truly the Blues’ best player is tough to say, and we would not want to draw too broad a conclusion on only thirteen games of evidence. But one thing is certain: Doug Armstrong grabbed a gem when he traded for Ryan O’Reilly this summer, and he will be a huge factor in the Blues’ future for a long time to come.