DETROIT — Forty-five minutes after the first guy had left the ice, the last guy was still out there. Some members of the Colorado Avalanche were already showered, dressed and boarding a team bus while Ryan O’Reilly did one of his funky drills – taking a pass, popping the puck over a stick shaft, maneuvering it around a water bottle, firing a shot. Everyone was gone by the time O’Reilly did the last of his gassers.
O’Reilly was doubled over, stick on his knees, when a maintenance man pushed a stepladder across the ice, now an empty, choppy mess. Was it a hint to get the heck off so someone else could work?
“Guess so,” O’Reilly said with a smile.
This is who O’Reilly is, in one sense. He’s a first-one-on, last-one-off kind of guy. He’s always staying after practice and coming up with creative drills, developing skills you didn’t know were skills, and he takes pride in his conditioning. Veteran goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere called him the Avs’ hardest-working player “by far.” That’s one reason he just landed that two-year, $10 million contract as a restricted free agent.
But O’Reilly was out even later than usual on Monday at Joe Louis Arena to play catch-up, because he missed so much time during his holdout and is jumping into a crazy, lockout-shortened season, on a team at the fringe of an ultra-tight playoff race.
And it remains to be seen who O’Reilly is, in another sense, or who he will become as he grows from a 22-year-old into a man.
Is he a “franchise player,” as Calgary Flames general manager Jay Feaster called him after signing him to that offer sheet? Can he be one in Colorado, even though the Avalanche matched? For now, he’s still a third-line center, slotted behind Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny.
Where is he on the ladder? Where should he be? How high can he climb?
Asked how he views himself, O’Reilly said he thinks he’s a two-way player and wants to be “that go-to player” – on the ice to protect a one-goal lead in the last minute, on the ice to erase a one-goal deficit in the last minute.
“I want to be a big player, and I’m supposed to be,” O’Reilly said. “That’s the thing I have to rise up to do now. Who knows? I’m trying to get back into it.”
Asked directly if he is a franchise player, O’Reilly paused and sort of sighed.
“I don’t know if that’s up to me,” he said with a little uncomfortable laugh. “That’s something I can’t control. It’s up to the management and stuff like that. All I can control is the things I can control.”
* * * * *
O’Reilly controlled his decision to hold out as a restricted free agent, and he’s up front about that. The Avalanche reportedly wanted to pay him $3.5 million per season. He wanted more.
On one hand, O’Reilly doesn’t have much of a track record offensively – eight goals and 26 points as a rookie, 13 goals and 26 points in 2010-11, 18 goals and 55 points last season. He led the Avs in scoring last season, yes, but he was tied for 70th in the NHL. He still has never reached 20 goals. The Avs, known for hardline negotiating, wanted to keep a certain salary structure, especially with Duchene, Stastny and captain Gabriel Landeskog needing new deals after next season.
On the other hand, O’Reilly is an excellent defensive player. An expert at stripping pucks from opponents, he led the NHL with 101 takeaways last season. He was good on faceoffs and stood out in advanced stats. He is known as The Factor.
“At the time, I felt I had more value than they thought,” O’Reilly said. “It was just a disagreement. It was strictly business.”
It was. Both sides used the leverage they had. In the end, O’Reilly won the gamble. He not only found a team willing to sign him to an offer sheet, but the Flames gave him more than he expected. The deal includes a $2.5 million signing bonus this season, even though he will play 29 games at the most, and a $6.5 million salary next season. That sets his qualifying offer at $6.5 million the following two seasons, too.
But the process went longer than O’Reilly expected, and it got ugly, and it put the Avs in a bind, and everybody involved looked bad. Some of it spiraled out of O’Reilly’s control, but it could have a tangible effect on him, anyway.
Sportsnet revealed that had the Avs not matched the offer sheet, the Flames could have lost their first- and third-round picks and then lost O’Reilly to another team, because he played two KHL games after the NHL season started and thus needed to pass through waivers.
O’Reilly’s agent, Pat Morris, never should have let him play those games because it could have hurt his bargaining position. Avs GM Greg Sherman should have trumpeted to the world that O’Reilly had played those games to deter an offer sheet – or at least should have waited to match so he could explore trade possibilities. Feaster should have checked more carefully and not relied on his interpretation of the rule. To be fair, it caught the whole hockey world off-guard, but it was their job to see this coming.
When O’Reilly met the media for the first time afterward, he was greeted by the largest gathering of reporters in his career – at least since his first appearance in Toronto as a rookie from Ontario. Few noticed the little things he had done defensively. A few more noticed when he had put up some points. But now a lot of people noticed when he held out, caused controversy and cashed in, as another team’s GM called him a “franchise player,” as two GMs and an agent got caught unaware of important details.
“Especially with the way it happens, he might put too much pressure on himself,” Giguere said. “We hope that’s not going be the case. … It’s part of his game now. It’s part of him. But you can’t let it define you. You have to be yourself. You have to keep doing what made you successful.”
“You always worry about it when those things happen, how the players are going to respond,” said Avalanche coach Joe Sacco. “That’s human nature, I think. I don’t think he really needs to change much.”
“I think he’s going to be able to handle it,” said Avs defenseman Shane O’Brien, one of O’Reilly’s close friends. “But anytime you make that kind of cash, expectations do get higher. He knows that.”
* * * * *
Can O’Reilly keep doing what made him successful and justify his contract in Colorado? Can he live up to increased expectations in his current role?
O’Reilly signed this contract with the Flames, who likely would have made him their No. 1 center with Jarome Iginla on his wing. For them, he might have been a franchise player. At least he would have had the opportunity to become one. But most NHL people peg him as a No. 2 center, and he isn’t even that with the Avs.
The Avs want him to be himself – to keep working hard, keep being a good teammate, keep playing well defensively, keep growing offensively. They certainly expect The Factor to be even bigger.
“I think there comes a responsibility now,” Sacco said. “That’s just the way it is. The good players in this league, the good players on teams, you get those contracts because people think that you can get the job done, so now there comes a responsibility with that to help lead your team to the playoffs or get you to whatever your goal is as a team.”
But what are reasonable expectations for O’Reilly offensively?
“It’s hard to predict,” Sacco said. “I don’t know. It depends on how much ice time you get and what you do with it.”
Ideally, Sacco would like to give 17 or 18 minutes to each of his top three centermen. O’Reilly should see time on the power play as well as the penalty kill. But Duchene and Stastny are the ones playing with the top-six wingers at even strength.
“I think there is some upside offensively still,” Sacco said. “I don’t know how much higher he’ll go. Maybe he can go higher. But I think more importantly it’s about doing the things that he’s done at both ends of the ice, the 200-foot game.”
“Offensively, I don’t think he’s going to lead the league in scoring anytime soon,” O’Brien said. “But he plays so good in all three zones. I know the defense, we love how he comes back and stays nice and low and slow for us in the middle. He’s a complete player.”
That’s valuable. Very valuable. O’Reilly now has the same $5 million cap hit as the Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron, a 27-year-old who has scored as much as 31 goals and 73 points in the past – and who had 22 goals and 64 points and won the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward last season. O’Reilly isn’t equivalent to Bergeron yet. Will he be?
Well, the Avs didn’t give O’Reilly this deal until the Flames forced them to, and so they will have some decisions to make. They can trade O’Reilly one year after they matched the offer sheet, as soon as Feb. 28, 2014. They could part with Duchene or Stastny, keeping O’Reilly and moving him up the depth chart. They could find a way to keep all three.
In the meantime, it will be up to O’Reilly to prove his worth. It’s a nice problem to have, at least for him. Overhearing a conversation about O’Reilly, one Avs player, sounding envious, not angry, interjected: “It’s a great life.” O’Reilly acknowledged how well he had done financially; he also apologized to the fans and asked their forgiveness, knowing he needs to earn it.
“I think there obviously will be more pressure,” O’Reilly said. “That’s good. There should be. I want there to be. I’m ready to make more of an impact on the ice.”
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