As our “Who Wore It Best?” series draws to a close, we (re)visit the most polarizing Avalanche player to don the burgundy and blue.
Ryan O’Reilly (2009-2014)
Avalanche fans may initially recall warm feelings of Ryan O’Reilly. Colorado’s second round choice (33rd overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft quickly endeared himself to the hometown crowds. His skills on the third line made him an invaluable part of the Avalanche’s defensive structure in his first two seasons, initially casting him as the checking “yang” to the offensively skilled “yin” of his fellow 2009 draft classmate Matt Duchene. Beginning his career wearing #37, he provided a ray of hope of Avs fans having someone worthy of succeeding former Avalanche center Chris Drury, who donned the number several years earlier prior to switching to the dreaded (and possibly cursed?) #18 prior to his departure.
O’Reilly seemed to reach a higher gear in his third Avalanche season. After posting back-to-back 26 point seasons, O’Reilly put together an impressive 55 point season during the 2011-2012 campaign, scoring 18 goals and 55 assists through 81 games played. Charmed by the young center’s relentless work ethic on the ice (and the surprising point totals which followed), Avs fans were abuzz with a growing debate: was Duchene, the projected heir apparent to Avalanche legend Joe Sakic, the key to success for the Avs, or was it O’Reilly, who’s tenacity and passion could create and capitalize on opportunities like…well, like this one?
With an impressive forward corps seemingly chock-full of budding talent in Duchene, O’Reilly, recent draftee Gabriel Landeskog, not to mention veteran forwards Paul Stastny and captain Milan Hejduk, the future of the Avalanche of a return to the days of deep playoff runs, division titles, and future Stanley Cup parades through downtown Denver seemed to be imminent.
Enter the 2012 off-season.
With the expiration of O’Reilly’s entry-level contract at the conclusion of the previous season, the Avalanche now had something of a dilemma on their hands. With O’Reilly’s performance the prior year being a pleasant (and possibly an unexpected) surprise, how would the club proceed with contract negotiations with him? Further, how would an impending work stoppage revolving around the expiration of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players Association impact those discussions? Certainly, O’Reilly could ask for a raise based on his recent play, but could he and the Avalanche come to an agreement which would be mutually beneficial for both parties, and could a potential lockout complicate those proceedings?
The end result was a little of column A and a little of column B. Glimpses of the contract negotiations between both O’Reilly and the Avalanche were sparse, with rumblings that both sides yielded little ground during negotiations. This, combined with a very real possibility of another lockout, cast a grim shadow over the upcoming season. The NHL would indeed lock out its players in the fall of 2012; as a result, many players opted to sign contracts in Europe or Russia, biding their time until the NHL and the NHL Players Association would
come to their senses reach a new collective bargaining agreement. Many Avs players opted to sign contracts in Europe or in Russia, biding their time until the NHL and the NHL Players Association resolved their differences.
With contract negotiations seemingly at a standstill with the Avalanche, not to mention no longer having a valid collective bargaining agreement to play under, O’Reilly signed a two year contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL on December 07, 2012, where he would ply his trade until both the NHL lockout and his contract situation were finally resolved. That resolution came in early 2013, with Avalanche hockey set to return to Pepsi Center shortly after. O’Reilly, however, remained on the sidelines, as his contract situation remained unsolved with the team. Avs fans desperately wanted something, anything to nudge the ball rolling towards a solution.
That nudge came in the form of Jay Feaster. The then-general manager of the Calgary Flames tendered a two-year offer sheet to O’Reilly on February 28, 2013, in the hopes of luring the talented center north of the border. The bid proved futile, as Greg Sherman, the Avs’ general manager at the time, publicly stated the offer sheet would be matched. Hours later, Sherman made good on his word: the Avalanche matched the Flames’ offer sheet, and O’Reilly was slated to join his teammates on March 03, 2013, against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team won seven of its first nineteen games played in O’Reilly’s absence, and fans were hoping for a change upon his return.
The first change was immediately recognizable: upon skating onto the ice at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, O’Reilly sported the number 90 instead of the number 37 he had worn since his first career game in 2009. The new-look O’Reilly was absent from the scoresheet that evening, as the Avalanche would fall to Columbus 2-1. It took another couple games for O’Reilly to start producing points: he notched his first assist of the season on March 06, 2013 (a 7-3 victory against the St. Louis Blues), and would score his first goal of the season two nights later (a 6-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks). O’Reilly, in 29 games played, would finish with a career-low in both goals (6) and points (20) at the conclusion of the season, as the Avalanche would finish one spot ahead of the last-place Florida Panthers.
The 2013-2014 season would bring more changes for O’Reilly: new head coach Patrick Roy elected to slot O’Reilly onto Duchene’s line. The move paid dividends, as O’Reilly’s production dramatically rebounded: he set new career highs in goals (28) and points (64) through 80 games played, while amassing only one minor penalty (playing the puck with a broken stick). During the Avalanche’s first round playoff match against the Minnesota Wild, O’Reilly notched six points, scoring two goals and four assists in the seven game series. His low penalty numbers during the regular season earned him a nomination for the Lady Byng Trophy, which he was awarded at the conclusion of the season.
Avs fans were dealt a shocking surprise from O’Reilly during the 2014 off-season, as news broke that he opted to file for salary arbitration. Speculation ran rampant over what this move could mean for the future. Would the Avs walk away from an arbiter’s decision? Was O’Reilly not long for the Avalanche? Who was more of a contributing “factor” to the Avalanche’s recent resurgence: O’Reilly or Duchene, and which player was the player the Avalanche, should push come to shove, cut ties with?
The rumor mill received a heaping dose of gasoline when O’Reilly’s agent, Pat Morris of Newports Sports, was quoted by The Denver Post during the lead-up to the arbitration hearing that his client was, “a stubborn, young man.” Worse, O’Reilly’s father, Brian, also publicly aired his thoughts on the ongoing process. Both men’s comments were negatively received by the Avalanche faithful, and for better or worse, the court of public opinion began to shift its perception of O’Reilly, viewing the player’s interests to be more selfish compared to Duchene, who opted to take a more “team-friendly” approach to his contract negotiations. On July 23, 2014, O’Reilly and the Avalanche agreed to a two year contract, narrowly avoiding their scheduled arbitration hearing. Avs fans breathed a sigh of relief, but it was becoming clear that the clock was ticking on O’Reilly’s tenure in Denver.
O’Reilly would play all 82 games of the 2014-2015 season. His production dipped slightly from his previous season, as he scored 17 goals and set a new career high in assists (38), totaling 55 points. Upon acquiring Carl Soderberg from the Boston Bruins on June 25, 2015, and immediately signing him to a five-year extension the next day, O’Reilly’s exit seemed imminent. During the 2015 NHL Draft on June 27, 2015, O’Reilly’s tenure with the Avalanche came to an end: he, along with winger Jamie McGinn, were traded to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for forward Mikhail Grigorenko, defenseman Nikita Zadorov, forward prospect J.T. Compher, and Buffalo’s 2015 second round pick (31st overall). The Avs would then immediately trade that newly-acquired second round pick to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for San Jose’s 2015 second round pick (39th overall, which the Avs would use to select A.J. Greer), and re-acquiring their own 2016 second and 2017 sixth round picks, both of which the team had previously traded to San Jose in the ill-fated Brad Stuart acquisition (the Avs would select Cam Morrison and Denis Smirnov, respectively, with those reclaimed draft picks).
O’Reilly played three seasons for the Avalanche wearing number 90, totaling 191 regular season games. He scored 51 goals (14 power play tallies, 7 game-winning tallies, and 1 short-handed tally) and 88 assists, for a total of 139 points. He also finished with 18 PIMs during those three seasons.
In the span of six years, the O’Reilly “factor”, once seen as a vital building block for the future of the Avalanche, dashed out the door, and disappeared from the radar.
Number 90 may be worn again someday, but until that time and perhaps long after, it will be known as the number worn by a stubborn, but talented, young man.
(Special thanks to avalanchedb.com, denverpost.com, eliteprospects.com, hockey-reference.com, and wikipedia.com for providing statistics, trade, and drafting information used in this article!)