BUFFALO – Ryan O’Reilly’s ability to adapt to an evolving game has helped the talented center morph from an unheralded second-round pick into an NHL All-Star and the Sabres’ most versatile player.
“Every year you got to reinvent your game,” O’Reilly said Thursday. “What worked last year at certain times isn’t going to work this year at certain times. It’s finding a new way and finding different things. It’s on myself.”
O’Reilly, 26, struggled out of the gate this season, and not surprisingly, the Sabres lost their first five games. Before the team left for its four-game road trip last week, O’Reilly, who’s notoriously hard on himself, said he felt “invisible.”
But O’Reilly built up his game over the trip. He closed it splendidly in Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime loss to Vegas, scoring his first two goals while skating a career-high 26 minutes, 56 seconds.
“It took a little bit longer than I wanted it to,” O’Reilly said after the 1-4-2 Sabres prepared for the Vancouver Canucks, tonight’s opponent at KeyBank Center. “But I feel a bit better on the ice now. I feel I impact the game more. I plan to (keep impacting) because I got to be one of the key guys on the team that’s leading the charge.”
Of course, O’Reilly has a very high standard for himself. He has played more minutes than any Sabres forward since the start of the 2015-16 season. He trails only center Jack Eichel in points (122-119) over that time.
Win or lose, O’Reilly, who’s in the second season of a seven-year, $52.5 million contract, usually laments his mistakes and missed opportunities.
O’Reilly knows if he doesn’t stand out, the Sabres might falter.
“That’s what I’m paid to do,” he said. “The key guys got to be the key guys, day in and day out. I haven’t been. It’s time to do that. It’s time to be that spark and do the right things and steal some games.”
The Sabres couldn’t nab some early wins, in part, because O’Reilly mustered just a single assist in the first five games. Their secondary scoring woes were so bad it took them six games – until winger Justin Bailey scored 1:26 into Sunday’s 3-1 win in Anaheim – before they scored an even-strength goal without Eichel on the ice.
O’Reilly scored two power-play goals Tuesday after Sabres coach Phil Housley moved him to the second unit. Still, O’Reilly’s all-around game has improved. He pumped five shots on goal Tuesday.
“I feel I’m creating more,” O’Reilly said of how he has changed. “I feel I’m a lot tougher to play against. Those first few games I feel I was trying to play too perfect, thinking a lot and not really trusting myself and my instincts. (I changed) once I got back to that and back to just being competitive, hard to play against.
“I think it starts from there, and the offensive stuff, the fun stuff that I can be creative with and I can try things, (follows). It was nice to get a few breaks there and get on the board. Now I got to consistently do it.”
Housley, a rookie coach, has quickly learned O’Reilly “is a very proud guy” who constantly evaluates his play.
“Eventually he was going to work his way out of it,” Housley said of the slump. “But I think he had to focus on just being better positionally down in our own end on a breakout, and because of it he’s getting a lot of touches through the neutral zone entering the offensive zone. I thought he had just more of a shot mentality the last (four games). You could see his game coming from San Jose to L.A. to Anaheim.
“Maybe he would’ve liked to have been more of an offensive contributor, but sometimes you got to take a step back before you take a step forward. He did a terrific job with that and finally got rewarded against Vegas.”