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Keeping O’Reilly Gives the Sabres Their Best Trio of Centers in Over a Decade

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If O’Reilly remains on the Sabres next season with Eichel and Mittelstadt, the Sabres could end up with plenty of lineup flexibility.

Buffalo Sabres v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

You have to go back to 2005 to find the last Sabres team that had at least three centers that were this good. The 2005-06 Sabres had four solid centermen in Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Tim Connolly, and Derek Roy, and this gave them a lot of lineup flexibility in the process. I remember when Daniel Briere first arrived in Buffalo. He made an immediate impact and many thought he could potentially form a strong scoring tandem with then Sabres winger Miroslav Satan. However, it wasn’t Satan that Briere developed the chemistry with, it was instead Jochen Hecht and J.P. Dumont.

In the summer of 2003, many Sabres fans wanted to see the team pursue the hometown product Todd Marchant who was fresh off a career-high 60 point season. He went to Columbus and never saw more than 34 points ever again for the rest of his career. Instead of Marchant, the Sabres instead traded for Calgary Flames forward Chris Drury.

Drury and Briere would usher in a new golden era of Sabres hockey, and after the lockout, it was Tim Connolly, Derek Roy that would emerge as the centers behind them. Once the supporting cast and reinforcements arrived in Buffalo, the Sabres rolled through the 2005-06 season and came within one game of a Stanley Cup final. The Sabres once again have the opportunity to usher in a new era with three strong centermen in Ryan O’Reilly, Casey Mittelstadt, and Jack Eichel.

One could argue that a key point to the Sabres coming out of the playoff drought is being strong down the middle, and this has been a hallmark of the Penguins teams with players such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as the top two centers. Crosby and Malkin have always been supported by players such as Jordan Staal, Jake Guentzel, Nick Bonino, and Derick Brassard all playing center, or wing in the top six throughout their lineup.

On a roster full of holes and following a dismal season, many are hoping for O’Reilly to be traded for the best return possible. But is trading away a high-quality player really the answer to solving the Sabres problems? Patience is a virtue and many fans have run out of it, especially after O’Reilly’s end of the season comments. At the end of the day, it might be much safer for the Sabres to keep Ryan O’Reilly on the roster next year and to reap the benefits he could have for someone like Casey Mittelstadt, and his frequent linemate in Sam Reinhart.

A safety net for Mittelstadt

One of the major benefits of having O’Reilly around next year is that he serves as a safety net for Casey Mittelstadt. Back in 2013-14, former Colorado Avalanche Head Coach Patrick Roy switched Ryan O’Reilly to the left wing where he would spend a lot of time with center Matt Duchene. This was right after the team drafted center Nathan MacKinnon. The Avalanche also had Paul Stastny who was also in the prime of his career. The result was O’Reilly having a breakout year as a 23-year old forward with 28 goals and 64 points.

Last season, the Philadelphia Flyers switched Claude Giroux to left wing and he responded with 34 goals and 102 points. O’Reilly switching to center may not get you anywhere close to a 102 point season, but with all of the talk of the Sabres needing help on the left wing, there might be a high-quality option on the team right now with both Ryan O’Reilly and Casey Mittelstadt. Both players have played plenty of left wing, and it might even be a stronger position for both players.

Many have touted Mittelstadt as a clear second line center, but in reality, we don’t even know if Mittelstadt can handle such a role as the full-time second line center after a small sample size of games. I feel very good about Mittelstadt as the second line center next year, however, there is some risk if for some reason he does not work out.

With O’Reilly on the team right now, we have a lot more options and a lot more flexibility as they can deploy three centers down the middle. They can also use Ryan O’Reilly on the left wing, and Casey Mittelstadt at center. They can even keep O’Reilly as the second line center, and use Mittelstadt as the top line left wing to Jack Eichel. They can still deploy O’Reilly heavily in defensive situations and use a line combination of O’Reilly and Reinhart to serve as a two-way compliment to a very fast and skilled top line led by Eichel and Mittelstadt.

With O’Reilly still on the roster, the Sabres do have the option to use O’Reilly and Mittelstadt interchangeably at left wing and center if they needed to. I would personally like to see the Sabres start Mittelstadt at center and using O’Reilly on the left wing with a veteran free agent addition like Derek Ryan or Tyler Bozak centering the third line. I would also like to find a way to add another veteran left winger with some speed, without trading away Ryan O’Reilly.

Improving the roster without moving O’Reilly

The reported asking price for Jeff Skinner according to Pierre LeBrun is a first-round pick and a prospect. Is it possible to acquire Skinner and keep O’Reilly? The Sabres are just outside of striking distance with most contending teams that own a first-round pick with the 32nd overall pick, but that pick maybe just a little too low for a Jeff Skinner package. However, they could try to find a way to move up a few spots in the NHL Draft to get into the latter part of the first round to make a deal a little more appealing to Carolina.

We saw the St. Louis Blues use Ryan Reeves as currency at last years draft to move up from 51 to 31. If the there is a partner out there, it’s not impossible for the Sabres to try and move up five to ten spots higher depending on what the receiving team needs. Some teams are looking for roster players, some teams need draft picks.

Would it be possible that the Hurricanes really like one of the Sabres top winger prospects in either Alexander Nylander, C.J. Smith, Cliff Pu? It’s unclear if they would be interested in the RFA rights to goaltender Robin Lehner, but it would make sense if he was part of such a package.

Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust are two other players that could interest the Sabres with the ties to Jason Botterill. Sheary, in particular, was once considered a great linemate for Sidney Crosby but had a down year last year with 18 goals in 79 games. Rust is a different type of player who adds both speed and grit to the Penguins top nine. He can slide up and down the lineup, play both wings, and is a driver of possession. He is an RFA this offseason and will get a raise from his current bargain contract.

I could see Pittsburgh wanting to get higher in the draft this year, and they own picks 53 and 64. They are also without a 2019 third round pick, and a 2020 second round pick so being able to accumulate more draft picks for future deadline deals might be ideal for the Penguins.

If you’re looking to add a highly skilled and fast winger to the lineup, the Sabres might be able to get the most out a player like Skinner, Rust, or Sheary if they keep all three of their top centers.

Lacks the ideal speed, but contributes in other ways

A lot of times, I believe that the so-called lack of speed is blown way out of proportion by many Sabres fans. Yes, he is not a burner and you’re never going to confuse him with Carl Hagelin or Michael Grabner. He’s an average skater at best. But if the long-term vision of both Jason Botterill and Phil Housley is to be faster down the middle, then Mittelstadt at center fits the bill more appropriately. Ryan O’Reilly’s lack of ideal speed for what the Sabres want to be would be better suited on the left wing. O’Reilly may not make the Sabres significantly faster on the wings as a group, but if they can add someone for the top line alongside Eichel, it could work, along with adding more speed and skill to the third line.

Even some of the fastest teams in the league have players who are not blazers because they carved out a role on a team, and do other things of importance. James Neal is not a blazing fast skater, and he’s been apart of three organizations known for being faster teams in Nashville, Las Vegas, and Pittsburgh because he was able to carve out a role for those clubs. The Pittsburgh Penguins team from two years ago had Nick Bonino and Patric Hornqvist. Both of those players played key roles for the Penguins. Speed kills in the NHL, but even some of the fastest teams in the league have slower guys in key roles and roles that are necessary for any team’s success.

Neal gave Vegas a sniping winger, and Hornqvist gave Pittsburgh a gritty front net presence who checks, chirps, and scores. Bonino gave Pittsburgh a key third line centerman who also formed the solid HBK line with the much faster Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin.

New Jersey wanted to improve their secondary scoring and also get a guy with some size at the deadline, so they brought in Patrick Maroon who produced 13 points in 17 games. The much faster Michael Grabner didn’t really do much of anything for the Devils after the deadline aside from two goals and five points in 21 games and seeing some time on the penalty kill.

That’s not to say speed doesn’t matter or that it’s overrated. In today’s NHL you don’t want to have too many players who are on the slow side. This team does need more speed, not just in the top six, but pretty much all over the roster. You need to just do more than just skate fast, and a player like Ryan O’Reilly does everything else very well, and I’m not just talking about faceoffs.

This is a player who plays some of the toughest minutes on the team against some of the toughest competition. He was also our most productive player on special teams leading the Sabres in power-play goals (15), and shorthanded points (4). He also led all Sabres forwards in ice time last year with an ATOI of 20:49.

Player usage chart: 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres
Left Wing Lock


He’s been one of the best forwards in the league at taking the puck away since he’s been here. He has the most power play goals per game of any Sabres player since the 2015-16 season, and he’s one of the most productive point producers with the man advantage. He’s also the Sabres most experienced penalty killing forward on the roster by far. Most importantly, one area I don’t think he gets enough credit for is that he’s one of the Sabres strongest puck possession players along with Sam Reinhart, which is one of the reasons why I think they would so well as linemates.

O’Reilly can benefit Sam Reinhart

Does anyone know what line combination was the most productive for the team last year? The answer is Evander Kane, Jack Eichel, and Jason Pominville, at least prior to Kane’s trade. But chances are, if you weren’t scoring with Eichel, then you were likely scoring with the possession driving O’Reilly.

These are the Sabres most offensively productive lines last year and combination percentages that they were used for the 2017-18 season according to Left Wing Lock:

1.) Kane-Eichel-Pominville (6.4%): 14 goals, tied for 47th in the NHL *

2.) Pominville-Eichel-Girgensons (2.5%): 7 goals

3.) O’Reilly-Reinhart-Wilson (5%): 6 goals

4.) O’Reilly-Reinhart-Pouliot (2.9%): 6 goals

5.) O’Reilly-Okposo-Pouliot (3.7%): 5 goals

6.) Larsson-Wilson-Pominville (2.5%): 4 goals

7.) Kane-O’Reilly-Okposo (3.2%): 3 goals

*Kane-Eichel-Pominville was the only line combination that was in the top 140 of the NHL last year for goal production.

By comparison, the most productive scoring line in the league last year was the Vegas Golden Knights combination of Smith-Karlsson-Marchessault which produced 47 goals. The Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals top two scoring combinations in the top 40. Those combinations were Ovechkin-Backstrom-Wilson (19 goals), and Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson (15 goals). Burakovsky-Backstrom-Oshie produced 12 goals, and Vrana- Kuznetsov-Oshie produced 11 goals.

One duo that stood out last year for Buffalo was Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart. Once Sam Reinhart saw an increase in ice time with O’Reilly, his production increased, granted he also saw plenty of time with Jack Eichel as well. The Sabres also had some success using O’Reilly, Eichel, and Reinhart on the power play together at times.

Going into next year, if I know I am also going to be paying Sam Reinhart this offseason with lots of years and lots of dollars, I might want to make sure I give him the proper environment to succeed and allow him to be able to stick with what works. O’Reilly and Reinhart are the Sabres two of the top three possession forwards from last year, and I might want to have the option to keep O’Reilly and Reinhart together next year or move Reinhart up to the top line with Jack Eichel.

Conclusion

It somehow seems to make a lot more sense to me to continue to add more depth and quality players around Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel, and Casey Mittelstadt. We’ve talked about trading Jeff Skinner, and some people have mentioned using O’Reilly as a trade chip. I don’t think it’s outside of the realm of possibility to try and acquire Skinner without surrendering O’Reilly. The reported asking price is a first round pick and a prospect.

But even if it’s not a player like Skinner, adding a couple mid-level free agents, and exploring the trade market for a good solid top nine forward like a Conor Sheary would make the Sabres significantly better next year, as would adding a good third line center who can also kick out to the wing like Derek Ryan or Tyler Bozak to a shorter term deal.

If Buffalo kept O’Reilly, traded for a player Sheary and signed Ryan, your potential top nine looks something like one of these three combinations:

C.Sheary-J. Eichel-K. Okposo

R. O’Reilly-C. Mittelstadt-S. Reinhart

E.Rodrigues-D. Ryan-J.Pominville

C.Mittelstadt-J.Eichel-K.Okposo

C. Sheary-R. O’Reilly-S. Reinhart

E. Rodrigues-D. Ryan-. Pominville

E.Rodrigues-J. Eichel-S. Reinhart

C.Sheary-O’Reilly-Okposo

C.J Smith-Mittelstadt-D.Ryan

One thing that Jason Botterill promised for this offseason was sweeping changes, but it’s easy to misinterpret that statement. It could mean he’s looking to shake up the roster by trading a big piece like Ryan O’Reilly, or Rasmus Ristolainen. It could also mean that they are looking at adding more players to support the current roster and trying to increase the level of competition on the roster.

There could be specific types of players that Botterill is targeting. He likely wants to add wingers with speed. It would also probably be a nice bonus if such players had a Stanley Cup ring. He probably wants to add players who come from winning organizations and known for leadership to infuse more of a winning attitude to the organization.

I’m sure Botterill will try and weed out guys who he suspects have bad attitudes. You can go back and reference how O’Reilly lost his passion for the game and was frustrated at this past time. But Jason Botterill has also said he wants to know from all of these players what is going to be done about it. Ryan O’Reilly said he loves the city and wants to be apart of the rebuilding. Next season could be his opportunity to prove it if he’s still here of course.

Ryan O’Reilly is indeed a fine hockey player and a valuable trade chip to the organization and you can’t ignore the tremendous risk the Sabres will take if they trade him. But unless this team gets a hell of an offer, I think the best thing to do hold him and add some quality players to the top nine. As I have shown you in the above example, adding a couple mid-level guys into the lineup along with a full season of Casey Mittelstadt should make a tremendous difference. It’s possible Mittelstadt starts the year as the third line center next year, but I am sure he will also see time all over the top nine.

Filling out the rest of the roster, and growing the prospects from Rochester is the Sabres key to long-term success. The Sabres could have three strong centers down the middle for the next couple years minimum with no cap ramifications if they choose to and could possibly have one of the strongest center trios in the league. If O’Reilly is traded, then whatever team acquires him is getting one hell of a player, which we already know.