BUFFALO – Four days into his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, ex-Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly has played three games and practiced zero times.
O’Reilly, 32, joined the Leafs during a dizzying stretch, so other than participating in a Tuesday’s brief optional pregame skate, he has only been on the ice with his new teammates in games.
“It’s kind of weird just jumping right into the games,” O’Reilly said prior to scoring a hat trick in Tuesday’s 6-3 win over of the Sabres at KeyBank Center. “But it’s also good. I think that’s where a lot of the chemistry and stuff starts to build is in those games.”
O’Reilly has experienced a whirlwind since the Leafs acquired him from the St. Louis Blues in a blockbuster three-team trade late Friday night. He arrived in Toronto in time to play in Saturday’s 5-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens. The Leafs departed immediately after the game for Chicago, where they lost 5-3 to the Blackhawks.
Following a day off Monday, the Leafs made their only visit to Buffalo this season.
O’Reilly took advantage of some available ice Tuesday morning before a throng of reporters and cameras greeted him in the dressing room.
The Leafs are going all out this year and they hope the recent additions O’Reilly and Noel Acciari, another center, will help them break their disturbing run of six consecutive first-round playoff losses.
How highly do the Leafs think of O’Reilly? His arrival pushed John Tavares, a center his entire 14-year career, to left wing. O’Reilly has been pivoting the Leafs’ second-line pivot between Tavares and Mitch Marner. They each assisted on his two first-period goals. O’Reilly assisted on Tavares’ early goal.
O’Reilly, who grew up a Leafs fan in Ontario, said wearing their jersey is “a little surreal.”
“I still can’t believe it,” he said.
O’Reilly, of course, is a proven postseason performer, having won the Stanley Cup and earned the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Blues in 2019.
Only a handful of players, however, are left from their championship team. The Blues recently began rebuilding, and O’Reilly, who’s in the final season of his contract the Sabres awarded him in 2015, was available.
Just three teammates from O’Reilly’s three-year tenure in Buffalo – captain Kyle Okposo and wingers Zemgus Girgensons and Casey Mittelstadt – are still with the Sabres.
By 2018, the constant losing O’Reilly endured in Buffalo got to him. Following the Sabres’ last-place finish, he famously said he had “lost the love of the game multiple times.”
Two and a half months later, the Sabres dealt O’Reilly to the Blues, a huge trade that netted them 36-goal center Tage Thompson, who has morphed into a superstar.
“Tage has been, this year, unbelievable,” O’Reilly said. “I feel like every time you turn on the TV it’s another highlight reel, something he’s doing. Even today, watching video of how skilled he is and dynamic he is, it’s very tough to play against him. I think, yeah, the trade has definitely worked out for both sides.”
After years of futility, the Sabres have developed into one of the NHL’s slickest teams and are finally challenging for a playoff spot again.
“It’s a very exciting team,” O’Reilly said of the Sabres. “You see the dynamic, the way they create, the speed, too. They’re generating stuff so much that, yeah, I think it’s a little different. Tons of talent and speed.”
For O’Reilly, seeing Okposo enjoy success again is special.
“Okie’s an incredible, incredible guy, incredible leader,” he said.
A lower-body forced Sabres defenseman Kale Clague to miss Tuesday’s game. Jacob Bryson, a healthy scratch all three games last week, replaced him.
Clague, 24, hobbled off the ice late in Monday’s practice.
Sabres coach Don Granato said Clague is “maybe even better than day to day, moment to moment.”
“We kept him off (the ice) this morning,” he said. “We could’ve had him out there this morning.”
Granato said scratching Bryson, a regular all season, had more to do with “Kale’s capabilities than anything negative on Jacob’s side.”
“You can take it one of two ways, and it’s always a learning curve, I feel like, in this sport, and you’re sitting out for a reason,” Bryson said.
The Sabres also scratched forward Rasmus Asplund and goalie Eric Comrie.