The solution to the Buffalo Sabres' biggest weakness is out there. Right now. He's available. At this moment. Right now!
His name is Ryan O'Reilly and he's a match made in Hockey Heaven for the Sabres' Coach For Life Lindy Ruff.
O'Reilly is a 6-foot, 200-pound, 22-year-old, two-way center who scored 55 points for the Colorado Avalanche last season.
A contract dispute with the Avs has landed him on the trading block.
The Sabres have two centers – Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis – who have both had moderate scoring success. But neither is a fit to be Ruff's No. 1 center.
The much-discussed system asks centers to play in both offensive and defensive situations. Hodgson's Offensive Zone Start Percentage is 50.3, Ennis's is 50.0. That means they are seeing identical time in both zones.
This is nothing new for Ruff and not unorthodox amongst NHL coaches. Last year, Derek Roy's O-Zone start percentage was 48.9 and Hodgson's 52.9. Some coaches split up players' roles into offensive and defensive. The Penguins start Evgeni Malkin in the offensive zone around 70 percent of the time and Chris Kunitz close to 30 percent. That's not the way Ruff likes to handle his assignments. And there's nothing wrong with that – if his personnel fits.
But Hodgson and Ennis are offensive-minded centers.
Last season, when Ennis was seeing his most success, his O-Zone Start % was 57.5 and his Quality of Competition faced ranked 12th amongst Sabres' forwards. This year, Ruff has still tried to keep him off the ice against the league's best. Ennis ranks 8th on the team in QoC, but he's been used equally in offensive and defensive situations.
As for Hodgson, he has been on the ice for 16 of the Sabres' 40 even-strength goals allowed. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, he has the worst On-Ice Goals Against rate in the NHL. He also has a negative Corsi rating at Even Strength, which is calculated by taking shots for vs. shots against per 60 minutes while he is on the ice. So, while he's seemed a perfect fit for Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, the young center has struggled at times lining up in his own zone.
In Buffalo last season, Hodgson was on the ice for 18 of the Sabres’ 44 goals against. That’s 41% of them. So it isn't exactly looking like a small sample size anomaly.
Hodgson has also faced the toughest competition of any Sabre. A lot to take on for a center that Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said he “couldn't trust” in his own zone.
While Hodgson and Ennis are young and have created goals on the offensive end, it's clear the Sabres are in need of a center who can play against the toughest assignments and still create and score. Unless they want to let 19 and 63 work it out and continue to give up goals at an alarming rate, that is. But you get the feeling the Sabres want to win now.
Enter: Ryan O'Reilly.
He may be around the same age as Hodgson and Ennis, but his skill set is a much better fit for the Sabres' coach. O'Reilly is built in the mold of a Michael Peca or Chris Drury – he can play in all situations including offensive, defensive, power play, penalty kill and take on the league's best competition each night.
Last season, at age 21, he faced the second best competition on the Avalanche only trailing Gabriel Landeskog and performed exceptionally. When he was on the ice, his team was +11.98 shots per 60 minutes, when he was off the ice -0.46.
Keeping shots away from the net has been the Sabres' biggest struggle. They ranked 30th in the league in shots against per game with 33.9 – a rate they can not keep up if they plan to climb the Eastern Conference ranks. When O'Reilly was on the ice last season, the Avs allowed 25.3 shots per 60 minutes.
The young Avs center scored at an impressive rate despite some bad luck. His PDO – a stat designed to gauge how much other players such as teammates and opponents goalies' performance may have affected scoring – was below average. Meaning, he's likely to score even more than the 55 points he posted last season.
Did I mention O'Reilly's only 22?
Don't believe the stats? Hockey Prospectus scouting writer Corey Pronman named O'Reilly the 16th best NHL player under 23.
Pronman wrote: “O'Reilly became a significant two-way force this year while playing against top players and driving possession at a high level.”
Possession? Oh, the Sabres rank 27th in the NHL in that category and are dying for help.
The drawback, undoubtedly, is the price and his contract. However, the Sabres have defensive prospects such as Brayden McNabb and Mark Pysyk who could be moved as well as either Hodgson or Ennis and draft picks. The reported price is an NHL player and a highly-rated prospect. Done. As for his asking price of $5 million. Do it.
How important is it to have a two-way center in the NHL? The last five Cup winning centers are Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk. There's no replacing a No. 1 center and Ryan O'Reilly could be the next franchise No. 1 for the Sabres...if Darcy Regier can pull the trigger, that is.