Ryan O’Reilly sounded rejuvenated. Getting traded quickly reignited the passion he lost last season as the Buffalo Sabres trudged to a 31st-place finish.
Almost three months ago, O’Reilly, 27, stunned the hockey world, saying the disastrous year made him lose his “love for the game multiple times.”
But then late Sunday, hours before the Sabres had to pay O’Reilly a $7.5 million bonus, they traded him to the St. Louis Blues in a blockbuster deal that netted Buffalo three players and two high draft picks.
“Now that it’s finally happened, I can put the last few seasons behind me and look forward and look ahead,” a candid O’Reilly said Monday on a conference call. “I feel like I have that spark in me now.”
O’Reilly, a versatile center the Blues coveted, said he doesn’t regret the comments he made as the Sabres cleaned out their lockers April 9.
“I want to personally do things different and be more honest and show off kind of making that effort, that you know what, I’m going to take responsibility, I’m going to make that change,” O’Reilly said. “I don’t think it was perceived in the best way, and sometimes that happens. I stand by it.
“Having a change and being traded, I’m happy with it. I didn’t have any real expectations, I try not to think about it. … It’s interesting how it happened, but I’m happy and I’m excited. I don’t regret anything that’s happened.”
He added: “I couldn’t be happier.”
O’Reilly joined a team built to win right now. While the Blues just missed the playoffs last season, they earned 99 or more points in the previous five full campaigns.
In Buffalo, the ineptness gnawed at him. Before the 2016-17 season ended, he said the constant losing was getting “exhausting” and sucking “the fun out of the game.”
The losses never stopped beating him down. After games, the disgust was usually evident on his face.
“It’s disappointing I wasn’t a piece that could help, but I’m more excited there’s another team that wants me,” O’Reilly said. “(I’m) with St. Louis, you don’t want to think about it, I’m happy I got a chance to go to a great city, great team that’s got a ton of great pieces. They’re trying to win right now, and that’s what I want to be a part of. …
“I don’t know if it was my comments at the end of the year that got (the trade) rolling. I think when … you finish in last place, I think you expect changes to happen. It happened they want to go younger.”
Not long ago – Wednesday marks the third anniversary of O’Reilly signing his seven-year, $52.5 million contract extension – he was one of the young pieces the Sabres began building around.
O’Reilly quickly became a fan favorite in 2015-16, earning an appearance in the NHL All-Star Game. Right away, the Sabres relied on him heavily, utilizing him in all situations. That continued until April.
O’Reilly said he was feeling things out that first season. Looking back, he believes he probably wasn’t ready to handle so much after the Sabres acquired him from the Colorado Avalanche.
“Being so young at that time, getting that contract, I don’t think I kind of got a hold of the situation as best I could have,” he said.
The Blues offer O’Reilly a better situation. Their roster is filled with veterans. They also have Tyler Bozak, Brayden Schenn and Jayden Schwartz, arguably the NHL’s deepest group of centers. O’Reilly’s workload should be lighter.
“It’s something that’s easier to kind of jump into,” O’Reilly said. “But I do thank Buffalo for everything that they’ve done for me, they’ve been monumental in my life, and I wish everybody there the best of luck.”
Having left Buffalo with zero playoff appearances, of course, is hard to handle.
“I love that city and I love those guys on that team,” O’Reilly said. “We just didn’t get the job done. I think they’re a team that’s very close, too. There’s a lot of good pieces. They’re in great hands.”
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said the first-round pick in 2019 they sent the Sabres is lottery protected.