Though it was certainly no laughing matter, back in November, Blues center Ryan O’Reilly was doing his best to make light of the illness that kept him out four games and his struggles coming back from it.
“I’m starting to think that losing my hands and hockey sense is a COVID symptom, the way I’ve been playing,” O’Reilly said after going without a point in his first four games back from COVID. “I’m fighting the puck and not making good decisions with it. It’s disappointing.’
But when you look at O’Reilly’s just-completed season as a whole, it’s clear there were two parts to the season, one early, where he had just five goals in 27 games before the Christmas break, and another after, highlighted by the playoffs where he was second on the team in goals (seven) and in points (12). Early on, it looked like it was going to be a rough season for the Blues captain, but the way he finished sent him into the offseason on a high note. It’s difficult to discount the effect that early bout with COVID may have had on his season.
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“Yeah, I think (COVID) definitely did a number on me,” O’Reilly said last week. “It was tough. It was tough coming back from it. Needing to have jump and stamina, it was tough, it was hard. It took a little while to find my rhythm again. I don’t think anybody had an easy time with COVID.
“It was unfortunate, but it was nice that we had the depth and we had different guys step up over the course of the year when guys would go down. We always had such a good team that we were able to keep going and stick with it, find ways to win games. It ended up being all right.”
A big finish of four goals in the final two games of the regular season to get to 21 goals and join the other eight forwards on the top three lines with 20 goals. His numbers for 2021-22 were not all that different from the season before; the problem was he played 22 games more this season. He had more goals in 56 games in 21-22 than he did in 78 games this season.
But draw a line in early January and you see two different seasons for O’Reilly. Going into the Jan. 9 game vs. Dallas, three months after he had returned to action, he had five goals in 31 games. In the 47 that followed in the regular season, he had 16 goals, doubling his rate from a goal every six games to a goal every three games.
There’s evidence that O’Reilly just didn’t have his hands for much of this season. He was sixth on the team in expected goals per 60 minutes at .94, but his goals above expected rate of minus-2.2 was the second worst on the team behind Alexei Toropchenko. But the Blues could count on O’Reilly in other ways: Coach Craig Berube showed his faith in O’Reilly by making 20 percent of his starts in the defensive zone (twice as many as Robert Thomas) and O’Reilly had the fewest defensive zone turnovers on the team at five. O’Reilly finished fourth in voting for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward. It’s the fourth straight season he’s finished in the top five, including a first-place finish in 2019.
That O’Reilly finished the season strongly is significant, because he is about to enter the final season of the seven-year, $52.5 million contract he signed with Buffalo in 2015. The Blues can extend his contract starting July 13, when the league’s new business year begins. If they don’t work a deal, O’Reilly will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2022-23 season.
It’s obvious the Blues will want to have their captain, team leader and de facto skills coach back, but a lot will go into what that next contract looks like. When his contract ends, he will be 32 and he has played a lot of hockey. Over the past five seasons, he has played a lot of hockey, 38 seconds shy of 7,500 minutes. Only four forwards in the league have played more in that span: Leon Draisaitl, Anze Kopitar, Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane. But he has also been tough to get out of the lineup: In the previous four seasons, he had missed just one game.
And while O’Reilly grew frustrated in Buffalo, a situation which greased the skids for the Blues getting a key piece of their Stanley Cup team, he is more than happy in St. Louis. He wants to be here too.
“Oh absolutely,” he said. “It’s a place I want to be. Yeah, it’s crazy going into a contract year. It feels like time kind of flew by. I’m sure over the summer and going into next year, I’m sure we’ll try to figure something out. Again, the season just ended, so we haven’t really had time to discuss it. But yeah, if it happens, it happens.”
Batons are being passed with the Blues. Thomas is taking on more of the top center duties, but O’Reilly remains the team leader. He’s still, along with linemate David Perron, the first guy on the ice each day to warm up the goalies and he’s still, usually with the team’s younger players, the last guy on the ice, running through drills often of his own invention involving stick work.
“Guys see Ryan O’Reilly,” Berube said during the Colorado series, “the things he does … not everybody but certain guys will take notice about how hard he’s working, how late he stays on the ice and then does this, does that. If you’re a young player and you’re watching that, then you understand what it takes to be as good as he is. Certain guys will obviously see that and take some of that into their life and understand how hard you’ve got to work to be a great player for sure.”
So it’s back to work this offseason for O’Reilly, not because it’s a contract year coming up, because he sees the Blues’ Cup chances still there in 2022-23 and because that’s what he does.
“We know we can give ourselves a better chance to win and be right there,” he said. “So, it’s going to come down to having a good summer, being in shape, getting healthy and ready to start right again.”