When Ryan O’Reilly was an alternate captain of the Buffalo Sabres, he made it very clear (as other players have before and after him) that he was unhappy with the direction of the franchise.
“It’s disappointing. It’s sad. I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times. You need to get back to it because it’s just eating myself up and eats the other guys, too. It’s just eating us up, and it’s tough.”
“I just hated to lose, and just with everything that’s gone on, I just kind of had nowhere to go with it,” O’Reilly said. “It was just kind of, ‘Oh, it’s all right. As long as I did some things well, it’s OK.’
“That’s how I kind of fell out of love with it, and I miss that. I want to get back to myself.”
Press in Buffalo didn’t exactly pillory O’Reilly for his statement, and many Sabres fans empathized with their star player’s comments. It’s been a rough decade or so in Buffalo.
Luckily, the Sabres were open to giving O’Reilly an opportunity to regain his love for the game, and wanted some pieces to, presumably, rebuild around. Enter Doug Armstrong.
Tage Thompson wasn’t being given an opportunity to consistently stick on the roster. Once a touted first round pick of the Blues (26th overall in 2016), Thompson was given the opportunity to play in 41 games during the 2017-2018 season, scoring just three goals and six assists. It was tough for him to break out of the bottom six, and any opportunities he had to do so, he didn’t capitalize on. There was hope that he could have an opportunity for more playing time and more development elsewhere, and the allure of him being a first rounder was too much for the Sabres to pass up.
Vladimir Sobotka was also running out of time in St. Louis. Still a useful player, Armstrong sensed an opportunity to parlay Sobotka’s nose to the grindstone style into an upgrade. Sobotka was a solid third line center that, due to injury and coach’s preference, played above his pay grade. Perhaps the Sabres could use him on the second line, and as an improvement to their penalty kill.
Patrik Berglund’s inclusion in the deal with Buffalo was not well handled or well communicated by his camp or, apparently by Berglund himself. Unfortunately for him, he lost his passion for the game after being dealt to Buffalo on a much quicker timetable than O’Reilly did. On December 8th of 2018, Berglund failed to report for practice and disappeared, not telling anyone what was going on. It wasn’t until later that it became clear that Berglund had personal issues compounded by the deal that lead to him leaving $13 million on the table instead of playing for the Sabres.
Armstrong packaged what has been referred to as “spare parts” for a center with exceptional awareness, defensive skills, and leadership abilities. He cleared cap space and got rid of two long-term contracts that were overpriced, and gave a young player an opportunity on a team where he could be of use. Luckily for Armstrong, the first round pick that became defenseman Ryan Johnson was as low of a pick as you can have in the first round.
Obviously, we all know where the Blues were by the end of the season.
Did the trade for the Blues’ current captain and 2019 Conn Smythe winner absolve Doug Armstrong from criticism of every signing, contract extension, and trade since then? No, of course not - but it does soften the blow of some of his business decisions for some fans. It’s not every day that you trade for a franchise cornerstone - and it’s nice that the Blues were the team that received one instead of being the team that dealt one away.