BUFFALO – Constant losing over three seasons has taken such a large toll on Ryan O’Reilly the center said he lost his love for hockey at times as the Sabres trudged to the NHL’s worst record this season.
Yes, you read that correctly. O’Reilly made the stunning comment Monday morning as the Sabres cleaned out their lockers and held exit interviews following their wretched 31st-place finish.
To O’Reilly, the Sabres are “stuck in this mindset of just being OK with losing.”
“I feel too it’s really crept into myself,” O’Reilly said inside KeyBank Center. “Over the course of the year I lost myself a lot, where it was just kind of get through, being OK with just not making a mistake, and 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 and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up and eats the other guys up, too. It’s eating us up, it’s tough.”
That, of course, sounds like a player who would like to be traded. O’Reilly, 27, is two seasons into a seven-year, $52.5 million contract.
But the former NHL All-Star said he doesn’t want to leave Buffalo.
“No, I really want to be part of the solution here,” O’Reilly said. “I love this city, I love it here, I call it home. There’s some good pieces, but it’s a big change I need to make mentally. I’ve said this so many times that I got to be a lot better and I sound like a broken record, but I’m going to stick with it, I’m going to keep trying.
“If something happens and I move, then obviously it’s a change they decide to make. But I want to win here, it’d be special here. It’s a great city, they deserve a winning team.”
This summer, O’Reilly said he must improve his mental toughness.
“I don’t think I was mentally tough this year,” he said.
O’Reilly seemed passionate throughout a trying season. He skated nearly 21 minutes a contest, more than any Sabres forward. After games, any mistakes and missed opportunities gnawed at him.
“It’s the best job in the world,” he said. “But at times throughout the year I felt I lost it, and there’s times I’ve found my game, I just enjoy it, it’s fun. But when you lose consistently like this for years, it’s tough. … I hated to lose.”
The Sabres are 93-118-35 since O’Reilly’s arrival three years ago. The nine-year veteran hasn’t played in a playoff game since 2014 with the Colorado Avalanche.
With so much losing in Buffalo, he said simply playing OK started feeling acceptable this season.
“It’s kind of … ‘Oh, it’s all right, as long as I did things well,’ and that’s kind of how I fell out of love with it, and I miss that and I want to get back to myself,” he said.
O’Reilly believes playing for Team Canada at the World Championship later this spring in Denmark could ignite some passion.
“We all need to get better right away,” he said. “For a lot of us and myself, it’s getting time away from the game. For myself, I’m getting ready to go play overseas, I’m excited for that, it’s a great opportunity. It’s been a while since I had that kind of excitement in myself that it’s like I got a chance over here to go win something.
“It would be nice to get that back and hopefully I do and can carry that over into next year, that fresh, excited mindset.”
Sabres coach Phil Housley said he didn’t feel O’Reilly “lost his passion for the game.”
“That could be a direct result of the position we’re in,” he said of O’Reilly’s words.
Like his predecessor, Housley leaned on O’Reilly in all situations, utilizing his wide array of talents. In addition to compiling 24 goals and 61 points, numbers that ranked second on the Sabres, O’Reilly won an NHL-record 1,274 faceoffs over 81 games.
Sabres center Jack Eichel (USA), winger Sam Reinhart (Canada)and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (Finland) won’t represent their respective countries at the World Championship.
Eichel returned from a high ankle sprain last month. Reinhart, meanwhile, will be a restricted free agent this summer.
Former Sabres coach Dan Bylsma will be an assistant on Jeff Blashill’s Team USA staff.
Sabres goalie Robin Lehner wasn’t available to talk Monday because he was receiving a second opinion on the lower-body injury that sidelined him late in the season.