A group of his teammates gathered around Ryan O'Reilly at the conclusion of the Buffalo Sabres' practice at First Niagara Center on Wednesday morning. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma had just announced that O'Reilly, 24, had been selected to represent the team in his first All-Star Game.
O'Reilly relished it for a moment, his teammates hugging him and tapping their sticks. Then he put his head down and skated away from center ice. It was time to get back to work.
Soon, he would be setting up three sticks in a triangular pattern near the net; this would be the device he used for the first of the day's post-practice drills. Those drills have become a staple at Sabres practice, with more and more teammates taking part as the season has worn on.
"You've always got to find little ways to develop your game," he said. "We've got a great group of young guys that work hard after practice – actually everyone, really. There's always a bunch of guys that want to do extra stuff and just feed off each other. There are so many nuances in the game to practice."
You can bet that if his numbers are what got him into the All-Star Game – he leads the Sabres with 16 goals and 34 points – it's those after-practice sessions that best exemplify exactly what he's meant to the team through 39 games with Buffalo.
"I'm coming in with him so it almost feels to me like he's been a Buffalo Sabre for a lot longer," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, also in his first season with the club, said. "He's come in and really been the heart and soul of our team and played that way, practiced that way, acted that way and that's the way he is right now so the transition for me, it's pretty amazing."
The numbers can't – and shouldn't – be ignored. They represent the sort of Swiss Army Knife that O'Reilly's been for the team, leading the League's forwards with an average ice time of 21:56 and leading Sabres forwards in minutes both on the power play (127:59) and while shorthanded (75:55). He also leads the NHL with 581 faceoff wins. .
But to see the true extent of O'Reilly's impact, look no further than rookie forward Sam Reinhart. Bylsma has marveled at Reinhart's improvement over the past three months alone as he's ascended toward becoming a mainstay on the team's top line.
When O'Reilly walked into the dressing room on Tuesday, long after practice had ended, Reinhart followed close behind him. That's the case more often than not.
"I don’t think I would be where I am right now without him," Reinhart said. "I've felt a lot better with my game as I've progressed and he's a big reason why. Just spending those extra, really hours each day just working on the ice afterwards, it can go a long way."
"I don’t know if Sam would’ve improved without that," Bylsma said. "I don’t have to wonder, that’s a big part of Sam's development has been the work, the extra he's put in with Ryan and that's the example that he is. And he's taking more people with him right now. Sam's not the only guy that's been a benefactor of the way Ryan's playing and the way Ryan's leading."
Bylsma had heard a bit about O'Reilly's leadership even before the he had a chance to coach him. After playing alongside O'Reilly for Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship in May, players like Tyler Ennis and Sidney Crosby told the coach what he might be able to expect.
"They were amazed, they were impressed and they were led by how he was on the ice," Bylsma said. "That's what he's doing, that’s what he's done from day one … it's an example for every one of us."
He's had a knack for being dependable during games too. O'Reilly ranks third in the League with nine third-period goals and 21 of his points have been scored either in the final period or in overtime.
"He's our leader. He's our go-to guy right now," said rookie Jack Eichel, who celebrated as enthusiastically as any player when Bylsma announced O'Reilly's selection. "I mean, everybody knows he's a great player. You see him on the ice and he's unbelievable in all aspects of the game. Getting to be his teammate, he's an unbelievable, he's well-liked in the room … He's just a guy you want to have."
Forward Tim Schaller and defenseman Josh Gorges were both absent at practice on Wednesday. Gorges missed for a personal day while Schaller is day-to-day with a lower-body injury, Bylsma said. With no extra forwards on the roster, the team will recall one from Rochester prior to leaving for a three-game road trip on Thursday.
Goaltender Robin Lehner, meanwhile, reported to Rochester on Wednesday for his first practice with the Amerks as he gets set for a conditioning assignment with the team this weekend. Defenseman Mark Pysyk will join him before the end of the week.
Here's what the Sabres lineup looked like on Wednesday.
9 Evander Kane – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 15 Jack Eichel – 88 Jamie McGinn
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson – 17 David Legwand
47 Zach Bogosian – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 46 Cody Franson
6 Mike Weber – 25 Carlo Colaiacovo