Ryan O’Reilly has never been a particularly fast starter. He’s usually good for a goal or two at this stage of a season, plus four or five assists.
But no one expected this: one goal and no assists through nine games. He’s minus-12 in plus-minus differential, which entering Saturday’s NHL slate of games was second-worst in the league. (To teammate Jordan Kyrou’s minus-15.)
No way around it, it’s easily the worst start of his 14-year NHL career with the Blues, Buffalo and Colorado.
By now, media, fans and even teammates and coaches in St. Louis are used to hearing O’Reilly take the blame — almost to a fault.
Still, there has been nothing over his previous four seasons with the Blues that comes close to his self-criticism earlier this week:
“I’ve just been absolutely horrible right now. I’m not really doing anything, so I’ve got to fight for my life right now. I’m gonna fight to stay in this league, I guess. I gotta do a lot more leadership-wise, my own play. If I could do that, just that small thing, I think it will make a big difference.”
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O’Reilly made those comments prior to Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders, the sixth team’s consecutive defeat in regulation. In that Islanders game, he made a key turnover that led to the go-ahead goal by the Islanders early in the second period.
Starting with coach Craig Berube, the support for O’Reilly is unwavering.
“He’ll work his way out of it, for sure,” Berube said.
But Berube added: “He needs help. He needs people that want to work down low in the offensive zone, and possess the puck, and do that battling stuff. Because that’s his game.
Listen. He’s gone against (Connor) McDavid two games and did a pretty good job. McDavid comes out of two games with one assist, and when he got the assist (O’Reilly) wasn’t even on the ice.
“He knows how to check and do his job. But offensively, yeah, he wants to help the team produce and get out of it. He takes a lot of the heat on himself, because he’s a character guy and he’s the captain of the team. It’s not all on him. It’s on everybody. He just has to keep working and find some chemistry with a couple different linemates.”
An adjustment period was expected following the departure of linemate David Perron, who now plays for Detroit. But nothing like this.
Berube has tried Jordan Kyrou as O’Reilly’s right winger in seven of the Blues’ nine games this season. But that has proven to be a water-and-oil mix. When Berube talks about O’Reilly needing linemates willing to work low in the offensive zone, possessing the puck, and battle for pucks — none of that comes to mind when describing the game of Kyrou, who’s having his own struggles getting on track.
Berube also has tried Jake Neighbors and Noel Acciari on right wing with O’Reilly. And based on Friday’s practice at Centenne Community Ice Center — the Blues did not practice Saturday — Ivan Barbashev will be the next right winger with O’Reilly when the Blues return to action Monday in Boston.
“Him and Perron had good chemistry together, but that’s just the reality of the business,” Brayden Schenn said. “You have to find new chemistry with new linemates or teammates, whatever it may be.
“I’m sure people are hard on him right now, but there’s no guy that demands more out of himself than Ryan O’Reilly. He’s gonna go out there, he’s gonna play hard, he’s gonna lead us. … He works extremely hard at his game. He’s gonna work through it. Obviously, a little tough stretch. It’s my job, and guys around him, to help.”
Gaining chemistry has been a double-whammy for O’Reilly because just three games into the season, left winger Brandon Saad was lost with an upper-body injury. Saad was back at practice Friday, and barring a setback is expected to return against the Bruins. In the six games without Saad, Schenn played left wing five times on the O’Reilly line, Barbashev once.
Perspective always helps. Reigning Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar did not score in his first nine games this season (although he had eight assists). But the Colorado Avalanche haven’t lost six in a row in regulation like the Blues.
O’Reilly is a perfectionist. Always one of the first guys on the ice for practice and among the last to leave. So you know this stings. Compounding matters, there’s a lot more swirling around O’Reilly than just life after DP and finding new chemistry.
Of course, he’s playing out the final year of his contract. In recent years, there haven’t been happy endings for Blues mainstays who don’t sign a contract extension before their “walk” year. See: Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz, Perron. Compounding the issue is an ultra-tight salary cap picture for the team after this season. There’s some talk that the cap could increase $3 million or more beyond expectations, which obviously would help bring back O’Reilly. But there’s nothing official on any cap increase, and there may not be for a while.
Back on the ice, it’s becoming more and more obvious that Robert Thomas is now considered the team’s No. 1 center. O’Reilly is the consummate team player, but players want minutes. They want to be on the ice. So this is just another adjustment for a proud player.
Thomas has led Blues’ forwards in ice time in seven of nine games — a distinction that in years past was almost the exclusive domain of O’Reilly. Thomas is averaging 20:14 of ice time, tops among Blues forwards. O’Reilly is at 18:25, fourth among forwards, and nearly two minutes below his per-game average over his previous four seasons in St. Louis.
The switch in ice time is evident on the power play as well, where Thomas is getting more work than O’Reilly for the first time in his career: 2:46 a game for Thomas, to 2:00 for O’Reilly.
Lastly, Thomas is taking more faceoffs so far this season than O’Reilly — long considered one of the NHL’s top faceoff performers. It’s close: Thomas has taken 157 to O’Reilly’s 150. But it seems strange to see Thomas taking defensive zone faceoffs over O’Reilly.
Of course, all of this could be subject to change over the course of a long season. But those are the trends in the early going.
Again, the veterans on the team remain confident that O’Reilly will come around. They’ve seen too much from him over the years to indicate otherwise.
“He’s truly one of the last guys you need to worry about,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. “He takes a ton of accountability. He’s brought a ton of accountability to our group. He’s raised the ‘compete’ level and work ethic of our group for many years. He wears his heart on his sleeve. Puts a lot of pressure on himself to be a great leader. And he is a great leader.
“Again, he’s the last guy we want to worry about in terms of righting the ship. … There’s no doubt he’ll be able to do that.”
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