As Ryan O’Reilly takes a seat at the Centene Community Ice Center on Wednesday afternoon, he’s wearing a St. Louis Blues shirt and a protective boot on his broken right foot.
You wonder how much longer he’ll be wearing both, which could go hand in hand.
O’Reilly, 31, will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and with each Blues’ loss, the chances of general manager Doug Armstrong moving his captain may be increasing. But currently, he’s not skating, and may not be for at least another week.
“I’m hoping soon,” O’Reilly said in an exclusive interview with The Athletic. “You just have to be very careful with it, so we don’t have any resets on it. So I’m hoping to skate soon, but I don’t have a real timeline yet. We still have to get more images next week and hopefully get cleared to skate from there.”
The speculation about his future, however, won’t wait for his foot to heal.
O’Reilly is No. 6 on The Athletic’s most recent trade board, and TSN’s Darren Dreger recently reported that the Blues have begun gauging interest and generally assessing what the market might bear for the center.
But don’t rule out the possibility of a contract extension with the Blues, O’Reilly told The Athletic Wednesday.
“Yeah, we’re starting to get a little dialogue going,” he said. “I think there will be some talks kind of going forward here, but yeah, there’s no timeline or such. That’s kind of all I can really give you on that.
“This is where I want to be. I hope I don’t get moved, but I think things will probably progress, especially with the deadline coming up and the talks with that. We’ll see how it goes. We’re starting to get into that.”
In the meantime, NHL clubs will be in contact with Armstrong about what it will take to trade for O’Reilly, and the rumors will continue to roll in.
“I still get messages from buddies every time — you’re rumored to this team, you’re rumored to that team,” O’Reilly said. “It’s honestly in one ear and out the other at this point. If anything, it’s a distraction, and I don’t want it to be a distraction for the team. You hear stuff, but like I said, in one ear, out the other.
“The main focus for me right now is just getting healthy and getting us back into the playoffs, and I think things will flow from there. My focus is to be here and contribute to us getting into the playoffs.”
Few could have foreseen the Blues being in this position in the standings at this point in the season — six points back of third place in the Central Division and a wild-card spot.
An extension for O’Reilly might have seemed like an automatic, but now with the potential of the club missing the playoffs, coupled with his lack of production, it’s not so guaranteed.
“Gosh, it’s been difficult,” O’Reilly said. “If things were going well and we were winning, I think things would be much different for myself personally, but as a group, too.”
O’Reilly does have 10 goals in 36 games, but with just six assists and 16 points, there’s some concern that he’s lost a step. But he doesn’t think so, believing a slow start just sort of snowballed.
Ryan O’Reilly. (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)
“Myself, starting early, a lot of doubt came in,” O’Reilly said. “Yeah, just not really trusting my game anymore. That’s why I think this injury comes at a good time to kind of take a step back and realize what matters, and that’s just winning hockey games and things unfold from there.
“I wish my numbers were different and I were creating more, but I don’t really care. When I focus on the details — playing good on the PK, PP, shutting down the top line — that gives us the best chance to win. My numbers are bad, but it is what it is, I don’t really care. I’ve got to get back doing what I love, and that’s trying to win games.”
O’Reilly broke his foot on the PK, blocking a shot by Minnesota’s Calen Addison in the second period of a 5-2 loss on Dec. 31. He took his skate off at the intermission and it started to swell up, but he felt fine when he went back on the ice.
“But after the game, the adrenaline kind of wore off and it started to really stiffen up,” O’Reilly said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good.'”
An MRI exam showed the break, and the Blues announced that O’Reilly would be re-evaluated in six weeks, which meant his return wouldn’t come until at least mid-February. Since he can’t skate yet, he’s been biking, swimming and doing a lot of upper-body work.
If all goes well, O’Reilly could be back shortly after the Blues return from the All-Star break and their bye week. That, however, won’t leave a lot of time — perhaps as few as 10 games — before the league’s trade deadline on Mar. 3.
“I just feel like there’s still time to get in and show that we can win here and that we are close,” O’Reilly said. “That’s why I want to be here, to be a part of that. But yeah, at the same time, I have (to) earn that spot with my play. I’ve got to earn that respect from this group, and that belief that we can do it.”
Though a Blues’ roster retool would likely involve trading O’Reilly, he was asked if he’d want to stick around if Armstrong decided to go that route.
“That’s something I don’t really want to think about, and that’s something I have no control over,” O’Reilly said. “If that’s what happens, that’s when I’ll revisit it. But I don’t think we’re in a position to rebuild. I think we can win and can win soon here — this year or the next.
“As a captain, I think that should be my focus, and if I believe in it, and I’m going to fight until the end for it, I think other guys will follow. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re right there.”
So would O’Reilly consider a “team-friendly” discount to stay with the Blues through something like that?
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “Yeah, I want to make it work, but I also want to hold my value, too. At the end of the day, it is a business, and if we can’t succeed, and you can’t do the job as a leader, then I could (see) them getting rid of me.
“So I’ve got to protect myself. I don’t know (contract) numbers and such. Obviously, the way we’re performing this year, the (salary) expectation will be much lower, but I still believe in myself, that I can be a very impactful player. I hope I’m here and we have success for many years to come.”
Interestingly, O’Reilly does not have a no-trade clause in his contract, which is a seven-year, $52.5 million deal that he signed with Buffalo in 2015. He was 24 years old at the time, but despite having 90 goals and 246 points in 427 NHL games at that point, he did not get such protection from the Sabres.
“I don’t think it was ever on the table,” O’Reilly said. “Obviously it was a great deal at the time for a two-way center and not someone who had crazy numbers. At that age, still fairly young, it is what it is. You just hope (if you get traded), you’re going to a team that’s good and contending.”
On July 1, 2018, O’Reilly was sent to a contender in St. Louis, where he won a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe trophy in his first season with the Blues. But now four years later, he could be dealt for the second time on that same deal.
“I’ve never really been through it in-season,” O’Reilly said. “If we have (contract) talks, and try to sort things out, that’s great. But there’s no point speculating on ‘what-ifs.’ I really don’t want to give it any attention because it’s out of my control. Kind of like that last time I was traded, it’s out of my hands.
“I want to be here, and I’m going to do whatever I can to get back out there with these guys and get into the playoffs. If something happens, something happens, but my entire focus is on getting healthy and trying to win. That’s why I don’t want to leave. I want to be a part of that, and I think things will take care of themselves that way.”
O’Reilly will make that known to Armstrong.
“Yeah, that’s something, a conversation, I’m sure we’ll have,” he said. “That’s between him and I, but yeah, something will happen.”
(Top photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)