BUFFALO – Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly’s ready to tackle a new challenge. During his first six NHL seasons, the 24-year-old wasn’t viewed as one of the Avalanche’s leaders. Colorado stars Matt Duchesne, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon often overshadowed him.
But O’Reilly, acquired in a blockbuster deal Friday at the NHL Draft, will have a new role next season. The Sabres want him to be one of the guys to shepherd a team filled with youngsters.
“I think it’s going to be a big challenge with me,” O’Reilly said this afternoon on a conference call. “I think in the past with Colorado I wasn’t really looked at as much of a leader. I think … with the Sabres I have to be a more vocal guy, be that more off-ice leader and on-ice as well.”
O’Reilly “always wanted to be a big piece” of the leadership group.
“It’s a step I can’t wait to get started with,” he said.
O’Reilly’s clearly happy to join a team on the upswing. He said the Sabres’ recent moves – they drafted Jack Eichel second overall Friday and added goalie Robin Lehner – “absolutely” make them contenders.
“It’s definitely exciting,” he said. “Obviously, the team in the last few days has made steps in the right direction moving forward.”
Sabres general manager Tim Murray praised O’Reilly on Friday, something O’Reilly said was “flattering.”
“To come in with the confidence in myself and his confidence in me, it’s definitely a huge honor and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
O’Reilly’s contract demands – he reportedly wants a long-term deal worth $60 million – made him expendable. The Sabres know he wants a massive contract and appear willing to negotiate Wednesday when they’ll be allowed to.
“I think it’s something to talk about July 1, something to look forward to,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve been to Buffalo before, know a couple of guys on the team. A couple guys have reached out. I’m excited to get there moving forward.”
In other news, Rochester winger Jordan Samuels-Thomas, a restricted free agent, won’t receive a qualifying offer from the Sabres, his agent, George Bazos, told the Times Herald. The Sabres could still bring back Samuels-Thomas later, Bazos said. Murray wants some contract flexibility heading into free agency.
Update: Former Sabres defenseman Phil Housley, who played in Buffalo from 1982-90, has been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Another update: Here are some quotes from Housley, who retired in 2003:
On getting the call: “Certainly every year you get around this time and you’re waiting for a phone call. I finally got that phone call this year. I can’t tell you how shocked, excited, extremely proud I am.”
On never losing hope: “There’s always that doubt. The players that went in before me, I mean, they’re really great players. They deserve to be in there. You always have a little doubt because it’s been such a little bit of a long period now.”
On his Buffalo years: “I got to thank Seymour and Norty Knox, the owners of the Buffalo Sabres, and Scotty Bowman, for taking a chance on a high school kid that probably weighed about 165 pounds soaking wet. It was a great time for me. Buffalo is a great sports town. I played with some great players – Gilbert Perreault, Lindy Ruff, Mike Ramsey. Some guys that really took a hold of me and made me comfortable and be part of the team. You need to have that core leadership, especially for the younger players, and they sort of showed me a way.
“I’ll never forget playing with Gilbert Perreault, who’s in the Hall of Fame, of course. What a great man, person, taught me a lot about the game. We were doing plays back in the early 80s, just breakouts and stuff after practice. I think the fans in Buffalo were very supportive of the Sabres, and spending eight years there was certainly … a great place to start, little bit of a smaller market, just learning about the game and being part of Buffalo.”