The St. Louis Blues were the NHL’s Cinderella story last season. Following the script of a feel-good Hollywood movie, the team climbed from last place before Christmas to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Centre Ryan O’Reilly played a starring role in the rags-to-riches tale. He led the Blues with 77 points, including a team-high 49 assists in the regular season, then contributed another eight goals and 15 assists during the playoffs. His exploits earned O’Reilly the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP and the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward.
Any evil stepsisters hoping the clock would strike midnight on the Blues this season have been disappointed. St. Louis (31-12-8) leads the Western Conference with 70 points.
O’Reilly has also picked up where he left off. After 51 games his 44 points is second on the Blues and he leads the team with 35 assists. Along with David Perron and Brayden Schenn, he has helped fill the void left by the injury to Vladimir Tarasenko.
While his numbers are good, O’Reilly believes they could be better.
“Every year you want to improve and be better,” said the personable 29-year-old from Clinton, Ont. “This year I don’t know if my numbers are where I want them to be. As team, and you look at the position we’re in, and it’s outstanding.
“It just shows the depth that we have as a team. It’s been a ton of fun this year and there’s still a lot of work left and a long way to go. We’re definitely doing things the right way [if] we’re going to have another opportunity.”
O’Reilly assisted on the game-tying goal then scored in the shootout during the Blues’ 5-4 win over the Calgary Flames on Tuesday night. He scored in an overtime loss to Philadelphia on Jan. 15 to break a seven-game goalless drought.
WATCH | O’Reilly’s shootout winner downs Flames:
“It would have been nice to at least hit double digits going into the all-star game,” said O’Reilly, who has nine goals so far this season. ”There’s so many other things I can do to help contribute. I want to score, obviously, and when I score, I feel it gives us a better chance to win.
“I think I can improve in the second half and play at my best.”
O’Reilly showed his sense of humour at last weekend’s all-star game in St. Louis. He donned a Kansas City Chiefs helmet during the warmups to Friday’s skills competition.
“We have one in our training room,” O’Reilly said about the helmet. “I thought it would be funny just to throw it on and buzz around.”
Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce attended Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals last June.
Kansas City plays the San Francisco 49es in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
O’Reilly came to St. Louis in a July 1, 2018, trade from Buffalo and had an immediate impact on the team. General manager Doug Armstrong said O’Reilly’s play early last season was the only reason the Blues even had a faint hope of reaching the playoffs.
“Last year when we started out, he was by far our most consistent player for October, November and December,” said Armstrong. “Then our team sort of caught up to Ryan and he stayed very good throughout the second part of the season and the playoffs.
“He’s in that same position again this year. He’s formed part of our leadership group now. With his work ethic on a day-to-day basis, the younger players have someone to follow, someone to emulate. He’s been as advertised from the day we acquired him.”
O’Reilly was picked 33rd overall by Colorado in the 2009 draft. During his early years he was more of a defensive specialist and won the Lady Bing Trophy in 2012.
Experience and opportunity allowed O’Reilly to evolve.
“I’ve always had good hands,” he said. “I think my shot is the thing I got better with and working on different releases.
“That just developed over the years, being more comfortable and trying to grow my game. You want to be a centre that contributes at both ends of the ice. I take a lot of pride in that. There’s no secret getting points is probably the most fun thing in the game, besides winning.”
Tarasenko, who led St. Louis with 33 goals last year, played just 10 games this season before injuring his left shoulder. The Blues miss his production, but his absence has forced all the forwards to focus on their game.
“I think having him go down kind of makes you know as a group we’ve got to produce, we’ve got to find a way to put the puck in the net,” said O’Reilly. “We’re not going to have him to bail us out.
“It’s helped us with the depth and guys stepping up in different way. When we get him back in the playoffs, or hopefully before, we’ll be a better team.”
As exciting as a run to a Stanley Cup final is, it also can be exhausting. Even with the short summer, the Blues didn’t seem to suffer from any post-Cup hangover. They won 12 of their first 18 games, including seven in a row.
“I think with the short summer you kind of just want to get back into it and kind of move on,” said O’Reilly.
“The most fun of that whole run last year was playing the games, winning. It’s nice being back and being in the situation again where you know you’re working on building toward winning another one.”