It was only about two months ago that it looked like another lost season for center Ryan O'Reilly, who's had his share of them, having last appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2014.
The St. Louis Blues, after an aggressive offseason that included a trade with the Buffalo Sabres for O'Reilly, had flopped. It cost coach Mike Yeo his job, and he was replaced by interim coach Craig Berube. It saw them drop to the bottom of the Western Conference. Things were bad.
Now? After an 11-game winning streak, significant improvements on defense and the emergence of standout rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, the Blues are third in the Central Division -- although they're not out of the woods yet in the competitive Western Conference, with four points separating them and the outside of the playoff bubble.
"The season's so long," O'Reilly said. "We come off an 11-game winning streak and then we haven't played our best hockey the last two games. You ride that high, you hit a low, and then you have to build it back up. The teams that can hang on through the tough times, those are the successful teams."
We spoke with O'Reilly on the ESPN On Ice podcast about the Blues, Binnington, Berube, his superstar linemate and the controversial end to his tenure in Buffalo.
ESPN: How have you guys done this? How have you gone from last in the conference to ensconced in a playoff seed in the Central Division?
Ryan O'Reilly: [Laughs] It's been a lot of factors. We started the new season with so many new faces, it took a while to find our groove. And we just stuck with it. Obviously we had our struggles, but we have a really good team. Outstanding goaltending. We have a great "D" corps. We're skating hard and helping our defense and not giving teams anything. It's been fun. Guys are excited with this big climb. And now we're trying to win this division and get the best possible seeding we can.
ESPN: What was the emotional journey like? At one point it was looking like GM Doug Armstrong might slam the button and blow up the team.
O'Reilly: Everyone comes in so gung-ho early in the year. Everyone had such high expectations right off the bat, and I had them too. So it was really disappointing, the way we started. I think the whole hockey world was [disappointed]; like, "What's wrong with these guys? Why aren't they winning? They're in last place." It's an emotional roller coaster. But I remember something my dad told me: To just be patient. It's not easy to win in this league. It takes a while for things to come together, and that's exactly what happened. It was great that they didn't blow the team up. They had faith in us and let us work through it.
ESPN: Your goalie, Jordan Binnington, won our hearts the other day when someone asked him if he was nervous and he shot back, 'Do I look like I'm nervous?' That's some confidence right there for a rookie.
O'Reilly: You want your goalie as confident as possible, and that's what he brings. When he's in the pipes, you don't see him nervous at all. He has a job to do, and he's done it well. He's not [swaggering]. He's an easygoing guy, and a really great guy that works hard. Goalies are a little different. But he's got a lot of confidence when he's moving in that crease. Just a certain ... aura about him that guys just feed off of.
ESPN: Your coach, Craig Berube, is a guy that doesn't always get the credit as a tactician, probably because he spent his career beating other guys up. But you watch this team -- on the forecheck, on defense in your own zone -- and he changed some things, no?
O'Reilly: Yeah, definitely. But I think at this level, it's not a lot of X's and O's. The players on this level know how to play the game. With him, he's great at reading when we're not playing our system. When we're not performing as we should be. He does a great job talking to us and making adjustments to get us back into our game. He's been an outstanding coach for us.
I think you knew a change was coming. With where we were, you knew a change was going to happen. But I really enjoyed playing for Mike Yeo. He's a really good coach as well. But Berube came in and brought in something different. As a team, we came together more and performed together. It just took a bit.
ESPN: What's it like playing with Vladimir Tarasenko?
O'Reilly: [Laughs] I really enjoy it. He's one of the most elite goals-scorers in the game, but his playmaking ability is underrated. I didn't really know that until I played with him, but it's so impressive. Because he's such threat -- you can't let him shoot the puck, because he's going to score -- he draws so many guys towards him that it opens up the ice so much.
ESPN: It's a bit like Alex Ovechkin, then. Another underrated playmaker, because they're put into the sniper category.
O'Reilly: Oh, absolutely. It's crazy. Why they're such threats is because of that. It's so hard to defend those guys. For me, playing with him, it's been a lot of fun. He's made me look good. I've had a chance to play with great players, especially internationally. But over the course of the season, he's definitely one of the best I've ever played with. He is a tank. He's so hard on that puck, and you're not knocking him off it.
ESPN: Back to you now. When you ended last season with the Buffalo Sabres, you made headlines for being open and honest about the way things had gone. Saying things like, "I feel throughout the year I've lost the love of the game multiple times, and just need to get back to it because it's eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too." What lessons did you take from that experience, and the reaction it got?
O'Reilly: I think, publicly, not to take as much responsibility as I did. [Laughs] That kind of hurt me a bit. But I have no regrets with what I said. I hate to lose. I was one of the guys playing the most minutes there. I had to change some things and be better, and I didn't do that. But, yeah, a lot of people didn't like that. But that's what happened. It was tough at the time, but I couldn't be happier with the way things worked out. I love being in St. Louis. It's funny how quickly things change. You learn from situations and reinvent yourself every year.
ESPN: Finally, how important is it to you to be a finalist for an NHL award? We have you third or fourth for the Selke right now.
O'Reilly: I don't really think about it at all during the season. There are so many more important things that you don't think about it at all. But it is a nice treat. Free flight to Vegas. You get to enjoy it. Who knows if I'll be there? But it's always a nice thing to be recognized. We'll see. Hopefully I've got the Cup in the summer. That's all that matters.