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O'Reilly surprises Avs, himself with strong play

by Adam Kimelman

"It's pretty surprising, coming here playing with the best players in the world, against some of the best players in the world. I surprised myself, I guess."
-- Ryan O'Reilly

It's not that the Colorado Avalanche were looking for a reason to send Ryan O'Reilly back to his junior team. It's just that almost no one -- including O'Reilly himself -- expected he would still be in Denver.

Not only is O'Reilly still a member of the Colorado Avalanche, but the 2009 second-round draft pick scored his first NHL goal in his seventh game, Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens.

O'Reilly found room in the slot while linemates Cody McLeod and David Jones were fighting for the puck along the wall in the Montreal end.

"The puck is in their end, and McLeod and Jones were battling for the puck, both working hard there for 25 seconds, and I'm just sitting back watching," O'Reilly told "McLeod made a nice hit, and the other team was looking for a penalty. Jones made a nice pass into the slot. I picked up the rebound and put it in the open net. They did a nice job, I got the benefit."

It's been one more nice moment for O'Reilly, who the Avalanche chose with the third pick of the second round (No. 33) of the 2009 Entry Draft. He's the first player taken outside of the first round to play in his draft season since the 2003-04 season.

O'Reilly managed to do what only five of the 32 players picked ahead of him did -- make the opening-night roster of an NHL team. It was something he hoped would happen, but the 6-foot, 200-pound center from Clinton, Ont., was realistic.

"I felt coming into (training) camp, in the back of my head, I thought I can make it," said O'Reilly. "But I never really thought about it. It's pretty surprising, coming here playing with the best players in the world, against some of the best players in the world. I surprised myself, I guess."

When did O'Reilly believe he had made the team?

"At the end of preseason they didn't call me in to send me home, so I guess I got my shot," he said.

O'Reilly earning a roster spot wasn't quite what Avalanche GM Greg Sherman had planned this season.

"I'm not going to say we had Ryan penned in to make our opening-night roster," Sherman told "It's a nice surprise he fit the criteria in that manner. You're always hopeful in training camp they've worked hard in the offseason and worked for a position. Ryan has done all the little things coming into camp and in the exhibition games, he played strong, two-way hockey. He has strong hockey sense about him. He's a little more mature than most 18-year-olds are. He's had a heck of a last 2-3 weeks here. He's earned himself the opportunity to start the season with us."

O'Reilly is averaging just 14:03 per game of ice time, but he's second among the team's forwards in shorthanded ice time, playing an average of 2:46 per game. He also leads the team in faceoff efficiency, winning 54.7-percent of his draws.

"They're giving me a shot to do some PK time," O'Reilly said. "I enjoy killing penalties. Anything I can do to help the team win. There're still lots of things I need to get better at to be an effective penalty killer, but they're giving me the opportunity, so I need to make the most of it."

The big decision facing the Avs comes Friday. That would be O'Reilly's 10th game, and marks the team's decision on whether to keep O'Reilly for the season or return him to his junior team, the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League.

"I think anytime you're in the evaluation process, especially with an 18-year-old, you're looking at can they keep pace with established NHL players," said Sherman. "… It's an 82-game season and it's where they are at maturity wise. You have to bring all these factors in. At 18-years-old, these are difficult decisions and you want to do what's right for the franchise and you also want to do what's right for the player. You don't want to put a player, especially an 18-year-old player, in a position where he's not able to perform at that level."

The question Sherman, coach Joe Sacco, and the rest of the Avalanche staff will ask if it's better for O'Reilly to stay in Colorado playing on the third or fourth lines, or go back to Erie where he'll play on the top line, the first power-play unit and kill penalties.

"For him to develop, is he better off developing here in that scenario or going back to Erie and continuing that development?" Sherman asked. "We will determine that at the appropriate time, what's best for him and what's best for the club."

O'Reilly said right now he's focused on making that decision as difficult as he possibly can.

"I'm just focused on staying in the moment, doing what I can each game, whether it's killing penalties, blocking shots, anything I can to help the team win," O'Reilly said. "I'm staying in the moment, focus on the things I can control and see where it goes."

Contact Adam Kimelman at
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