Sitting in the upper deck of the Pepsi Center Tuesday Night for the Colorado Avalanche home opener, my friend Cole and I watched as the Avalanche introduced their players without mentioning the guy whose jersey we were both wearing. Seamlessly, the Avalanche P.A. announcer yelled out the names of number 35, Jean Sebastian Giguere and moved onto number 40, Mark Olver. He didn’t mentioned number 37, Ryan O’Reilly.
Of course, the Avalanche jerseys with O’Reilly’s name no longer bear the number 37 on the back of both Cole and my jerseys. The fourth year pro, currently in a contract dispute with the Avalanche, planned on changing his number to 90, even if he still wore the 37 for his KHL team, the Metallurg Magnitogorsk, before his release today. The Avalanche are selling the O’Reilly jerseys, with his number 90, for full price in the team store. However, he is an imaginary player on the Avalanche’s roster at the moment.
What is not imaginary is the toll not having O’Reilly is taking on the team. General Manager Greg Sherman had secured three scoring lines for the Avalanche heading into the abbreviated 2013 season. A first line of center Matt Duchene with free agent signee P.A. Parenteau and rookie-of-the year Gabriel Landeskog, with a counterbalanced second line of wingers David Jones and Jamie McGinn flanking longtime Avalanche center Paul Stastny.
This setup then left a third line of Milan Hejduk, who has been solid through the first two games, and Steve Downie to play in between the Avalanche’s leading point scorer last year, Ryan O’Reilly. The Avalanche had a third line to be reckoned with, but they could not sign O’Reilly either before or after the lockout. Additionally, Steve Downie went down to a season ending knee injury Tuesday night, leaving only Hejduk. Free agent center John Mitchell has provided quite the spark on the third line, but he would play better on an energy fourth line with Cody McCleod. O’Reilly and Hejduk could be joined by either Mark Olver or Chuck Kobasew, who show flashes of offensive talent.
The Avalanche and O’Reilly have been in a contract dispute since the team signed their last unrestricted free agent the middle of July. In the reported potential deals for O’Reilly, he has been offered two years totaling $7 million and five years totaling $17 million, which come out to about $3.5 million a year in both deals. O’Reilly believes he should at least make the $4 million a year the team offered David Jones. In the team’s eyes, Jones was a free agent instead of a restricted free agent like O’Reilly. However, O’Reilly was reportedly making at least $4 million in the KHL before his release.
The Avalanche point to a total lack of offensive production on O’Reilly’s part as he just broke 100 career points at the end of his third season. Last year was his best offensive season when he scored 18 goals and led the team with 55 points. However, O’Reilly established himself as a defensive center his first two years, mostly because that was the role asked of him. Only when he really got to play with other offensive players, like Landeskog and Hejduk, did his skill come out. There really is not yet a ceiling on O’Reilly’s offensive talent.
The Avalanche are also overlooking the entire value of O’Reilly. He is the team’s best faceoff man in the defensive zone. He has consistently been one of the team’s best penalty killers. O’Reilly is the hardest working player on the ice and never takes a shift off. He practices longer than anyone and leads the Avalanche with his work ethic.
Will the Avalanche have to overpay for O’Reilly? They probably will based on his offensive numbers alone. However, now that they are without Downie, the situation becomes more complicated. Without the third line, the Avalanche suddenly are asking a lot more of their young top two lines, while spreading their talent thin in the bottom six forwards. O’Reilly elevates the Avalanche to the next level. Can the Avs swallow their pride?