A year ago, Jake Christiansen was playing junior hockey in Everett, Wash., wondering what his future held.
On the list of possible scenarios, getting personal tutoring from the MVP of the NHL playoffs would have been low on the list, if Christiansen had let his imagination stray that far.
But there was Christiansen, a defenseman just past his 20th birthday, on the ice at the Centene Community Ice Center with a handful of other Blues' minor-leaguers-to-be after a preseason training session, working with Ryan O'Reilly, who has the best stocked trophy case of anyone on the Blues.
“It's amazing,” said Christiansen, who a few days later would be sent off to San Antonio's camp. “He's such a good guy. He's telling us what we can do to get better and telling us how we can do better in the drill. … I would be doing a shooting drill and he'd say, maybe push the puck this way or pull it in this way a little more. Then he'd tell me I did a good job on that. Little things like that can help me get an edge. I'm just trying to use everything he tells me to try to get better with my game.”
So if you were wondering if success would spoil Ryan O'Reilly, the answer is most certainly no.
While everyone's life has changed on this Blues' team because of their Stanley Cup win, there's a case to be made that no one on the team – other than Jordan Binnington and, maybe, Mike Yeo – has seen his life change more from July 1, 2018 to today than O'Reilly. There he was, stuck with a bad team in a bad situation in Buffalo, then traded to the Blues, then went on to win the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP and then a few days later, the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward. A bit later, there was O'Reilly, on stage in Los Angeles, picking up an ESPY on behalf of his team for the year's biggest comeback.
And when camp resumed in September, there was O'Reilly back on the ice, putting himself through extra drills like he always does, joined by whoever wants part of that. Once, he had to tell the guy driving the ice-resurfacing machine to wait just a little bit longer. Another time, coach Craig Berube was telling staffers to get him and his group off the ice because it was going to hold up the second session of practice.
“There's always guys you play with that find a way to elevate your game,” said linemate David Perron, whose 23 goals last season were his most since 2013-14. “The only other guy I played with that I had the same feeling going on to the ice every shift was (Anaheim's) Ryan Getzlaf. Those are two guys that really slow the game down. They play the right way, they work hard, and they always find guys in right areas of the ice. You have that extra half second, that extra second, to make a play. … It's more with his work ethic, the way he plays the game, it helps me more than the other way around probably.”
For as well as O'Reilly, 28, has played in his career, for once there was a high-level buzz about him. In the first nine seasons of his NHL career, he never got even a vote for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP. That changed last season, when he got enough to finish 13th. He was the easy winner of the Conn Smythe as he scored a goal in each of the final four games of the Stanley Cup Final with Boston.
“Once we started winning there was much more buzz, that's the most I've been around,” he said. “In Buffalo, when you're losing, there's a lot of negativity around there that surrounds that situation when you lose. Being around that for a bit here and then crawling back into it, all that attention starts coming, not just myself but all the guys.”
No one on the Blues is harder on himself than O'Reilly, who sees each loss as an indictment of his play. His after-school sessions aren't just about making teammates better. It's part of O'Reilly's drive to make himself better because he is never satisfied, and that still goes as his awards pile up.
“I have a lot more to do, I think,” he said. “Last year was great, but you kind of get a taste and there are still so many areas I can improve upon. I hope I'm at the cusp of it, and I expect a lot more of myself. There's still a lot more things I want to do.”
And O'Reilly measures that by how well the team does. So when you ask him what he needs to be better at, the answer isn't about him.
“Proving we're the best team again,” he said. “I think if we can do that, I think that's when everything else falls into place. And that's the focus. Being a winner last year is amazing, but I want to do that again. ... That competitiveness, being in high-pressure situations and playing those overtimes and winning, that's why you play the game right there, to be in those situations and that's what I want to do.”
Life skates on for Ryan O'Reilly, in ways he wouldn't have guessed. The only thing that's certain is the road he will take to try to get there.