- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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Declaring your team's most important player is not a simple thing. It's not always the most valuable guy or the highest points producer. It is the player who makes your team go; the one you can't afford to lose, even if all he contributes can't be measured by fancy stats.
Most Important Player: Ryan O'Reilly, Center
Few teams were as aggressive this offseason as the Buffalo Sabres in categorically upgrading their roster. The Sabres selected coveted center Jack Eichel at the No. 2 spot in the draft. On that same weekend, Sabres general manager Tim Murray landed one of the top goaltender on the trading block in former Ottawa Senators netminder Robin Lehner. He also added depth down the middle in trading for veteran pivot David Legwand. And let’s not forget the earlier acquisition of talented winger Evander King, added in a deal with the Winnipeg Jets in February. Take all of these personnel additions, factor in a new coach in former Jack Adams Award winner Dan Bylsma and there is a lot to be optimistic about in Buffalo.
But perhaps the biggest move of the summer was trading for Colorado Avalanche centerman Ryan O’Reilly. The Sabres inked the 24-year-old to a whopping seven-year, $52.5 million deal, locking him up long-term and providing Buffalo a strong two-way centerman for years to come.
O’Reilly’s tenure with the Buffalo Sabres is already off to a rocky start with the former second-round pick being charged in his native Ontario for an impaired driving incident in July that has yet to be legally resolved. It remains unclear whether O’Reilly would be subject to supplementary NHL discipline once that happens, but the Sabres have to be hoping he does not miss any time as a result.
O’Reilly figures to slot in as the team’s first-line center, a critical role not only as a catalyst to an offense that was downright anemic las season (the Sabres ranked dead last in offense with 1.87 goals per game), but also to allow a player like Eichel the proper time to develop. O’Reilly already has six years of NHL experience and is known for his sound defensive abilities. He can draw the tougher defensive matchups while Eichel acclimates to the NHL game.
Eichel would’ve likely garnered top billing in any other NHL draft had he not been in the same class as generational talent Connor McDavid. He is going to be a star in his own right, but the worst thing for his career would be to thrust him into a huge role before he was ready. O’Reilly’s presence should prevent that from happening. Now, all of the sudden, the Sabres have a strong corps of young offensive talent with O’Reilly leading the way. Expect a different result from last season’s abysmal last-place finish.
13dScott Burnside and Craig Custance