Getting the most out of Ryan O’Reilly

Photo credit:John Leyba-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
Ryan O’Reilly is a chose your own narrative. One day he can be the leader that will take the Leafs to the promise land. The next he might be viewed as a third line center that the Leafs really didn’t need. Neither of these are fair assessments or likely capture the full extent of his value to the team, but I’m sure the Leafs would prefer if he immediately inserts himself into the leadership group and helps take them to the promise land. At least in the short term, Ryan O’Reilly being part of the Leafs core would be great and the question I’m interested in is figuring out “how do the Leafs get the best Ryan O’Reilly?”
It’s hard to see 2019 as the best Ryan O’Reilly. He won the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe, the Selke, and the highly prized Lady Byng. So let’s set the high bar when O’Reilly was 27 and in the prime of his career. He tied his career best 28 goals, and set a career high of 77 points. Mainly I think he did all of that just because he was so excited to get out of Buffalo.
Even the charts loved him that year.
A big part of went right in that first year in St. Louis for Ryan O’Reilly was the realization that his ideal winger is David Perron. In the regular season David Perron was only O’Reilly’s third most frequent linemate, as he primarily played with Tarasenko and Schenn, but the defensive outputs when O’Reilly was on the ice with Perron don’t lie and during the playoff run, Perron was the most frequent linemate of O’Reilly with Vladimir Tarasenko still there for the offensive assignments, but Sammy Blais helping out with the defensive zone work.
Regular Season WOWYS 2018-19
WithTOI WithCF/60CA/60CF% WithGF/60GA/60GF% WithxGF/60xGA/60xGF% With
Vladimir Tarasenko700.3265.2856.1253.783.432.0662.503.032.3955.83
Brayden Schenn397.3366.1456.1754.073.781.8167.573.412.5557.19
David Perron327.9053.4345.9353.783.291.4669.232.551.7659.13
Zach Sanford217.0249.2153.0848.112.761.6662.502.462.0954.06
Alexander Steen192.5062.0343.6458.702.490.9472.732.181.6357.25
Jaden Schwartz183.9065.5847.3158.092.281.9653.852.572.1254.81
Pat Maroon120.1754.9252.4351.162.503.0045.452.482.1853.14
So it’s not that Ryan O’Reilly was exactly struggling in any situation. You might question how Zach Sanford got that much of a look with him, but other than that it was a good collection of players to try with ROR, but Perron is the one that not only stuck for the playoffs, but rest of the time that Perron was in St. Louis. It’s likely not a coincidence that Ryan O’Reilly’s performance slide this year with Perron now in Detroit.
So…the quick way for the Leafs to get the best out of Ryan O’Reilly might be to pick up the phone and call Steve Yzerman to see what it will cost to add David Perron. It’s not completely impossible that he’s available and that the Wings would move him, but instead I’d say it makes more sense to see who are the Perron like players the Leafs have at their disposal.
Above is the breakdown of what Perron looked like for the majority of the time he played with O’Reilly. He wasn’t anything particularly special at even strength offensively, but he was one hell of a shot suppressor, the Leafs have those. He had a little bit of offense that could be harnessed by working with O’Reilly who is a slightly elevated version of that archetype as well.
The Leafs might have reasonable answers to unlocking the Perron type linemate with a couple of current Leafs:
Hello gentlemen. Kerfoot is about as close to a carbon copy of Perron in St. Louis as you can get if you want to rely entirely on RAPM to make that assessment. Engvall also looks to bring a lot of the similar qualities as well. Both Kerfoot and Engvall do the thing that Ryan O’Reilly isn’t the best at either and that’s carry the puck up the ice. They both are a little quicker (Engvall a lot quicker) and could potentially allow the high priced acquisition an opportunity to play the style of hockey he has excelled at rather than forcing him into a situation that he’ll do well at (as a second liner) but he has the potential to do great on the third line. It’s also safe to say that Ryan O’Reilly has the potential to get more offense out of Engvall and Kerfoot, who have that in their game as well, but just need someone to unlock it by being their finisher.
Now, the Leafs might not need both of them, and depending on what else Toronto wants to do before the trade deadline, having both Engvall and Kerfoot might not be an option. There’s also something to be said for the third part of who was playing with O’Reilly and Perron, and that was often Sammy Blais during the Cup run. The Leafs have two Sammy Blais options to tap into, the first being Zach Aston-Reese, the second being Noel Acciari, who has been on the same penalty killing unit as O’Reilly all season and has some familiarity built in. I’m not saying he’s the right option, but he’s the one you’d potentially start with.
At this point you are probably fuming at the lack of appreciation for Ryan O’Reilly’s offensive abilities, and my desire to saddle him with bottom six players. That’s fair. You are right to be mad. The thing is, lines aren’t locked in all game, and there is likely a huge advantage to using Ryan O’Reilly for offensive zone starts on the second line, presumably replacing Calle Jarnkrok, or moving him up to the second line when the Leafs are trailing. The interchangeability of O’Reilly and a second line left wing who also has center abilities cannot be understated, and allows for the third line to roll pretty smoothly in his absence. Also, there will be plenty of time for O’Reilly on the powerplay and the impact of having two high talent powerplay units is going to make Toronto a bigger threat.
So all I’m saying is give third line center Ryan O’Reilly a chance. He hasn’t looked bad on the second line, but I’d argue the key to success for the Leafs comes from balanced lines rather than overloading the top two.
Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey

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