Ryan O'Reilly settling into life as a member of the Maple Leafs
TORONTO — Ryan O'Reilly passed through the locker room's sliding doors and was immediately told he would be heading to a different sheet of ice.
After one of the newest Maple Leafs was done with a series of drills alongside William Nylander and Michael Bunting, he joined the larger group on another rink across the hall.
Before long, Reilly was following the crowd again — to a third pad, the one he first stepped on — to conclude the session.
"I walked to that ice and they sent me to the other one," O'Reilly said with a grin Thursday following his first practice with Toronto. "I got out there and they sent me to the other one.
"A little confused where I was going."
Those first-day-of-school vibes were to be expected.
There's no uncertainty, however, when it comes to what the centre brings a team starved for playoff success — and where the Leafs hope he can help take them.
Acquired from the St. Louis Blues last week along with fellow veteran forward Noel Acciari, O'Reilly is a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner with a blend of swagger, humour, confidence, post-season pedigree and drive.
"Very fun and easy-going, doesn't take himself or anything else too seriously," Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "Yet his game and his routine and his craft, he takes extremely seriously and works extremely hard at. That's a pretty rare balance.
"An extremely important part of our team, but he also is bringing a lot of things that are going to really help us in a lot of areas — not just in what his on-ice contributions are."
O'Reilly has hit the ground running with the Leafs, centring a line with John Tavares, who's been moved to the wing, and Mitch Marner through three games.
The 32-year-old from Clinton, Ont., picked up an assist in Saturday's 5-1 victory over Montreal to wrap up a crazy 24 hours after the trade. He then registered the fourth hat trick of his career to go along with an assist Tuesday in Buffalo on a night where Marner set up five goals in a 6-3 triumph.
O'Reilly joked a kid playing minor hockey could have scored three times that night.
"The processing ability — his decision making — is next level," the 2019 Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's top defensive forward said of skating with Marner. "Already knows what he's doing before he even gets the puck."
Keefe has stuck with that trio for now, but there are a number of combinations he wants auditioned before the playoffs as Toronto churns towards what seems like an inevitable first-round rematch with Tampa Bay.
"Very intrigued by the ability to move some things around," Keefe said. "We don't have that much schedule, but we do have enough schedule where we can give some things time to breathe."
Leafs centre Auston Matthews said both O'Reilly and Acciari have fit in seamlessly since arriving.
"We've gotten a big boost," he said. "A lot of really good energy is flowing."
While O'Reilly is getting most of the headlines, and rightly so, Acciari has also made a good first impression further down the lineup.
"Hits hard and seems to be in the right spots," Matthews said. "Last game you could see when stuff started to slip for us, that line especially went out there and got it back with their physicality and their competitiveness."
O'Reilly and Acciari will be seeing plenty of their new teammates in the coming weeks. The Leafs host Minnesota on Friday before heading right back out on a road trip that won't see them play at home again until March 11.
"The timing is difficult to try to find your stride and try to get adjusted and feel comfortable," Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "It's important that as a group we do a good job to try to make them feel comfortable."
O'Reilly and Acciari, who rushed to Toronto right after the trade to face Montreal before immediately heading back to the airport with their new team for games in Chicago and Buffalo, finally got some time to exhale in their new city Wednesday — just as a winter storm was about to hit.
"Just kind of take a breath ... take a second to relax," Acciari said of the brief respite. "Been a bit of a whirlwind."
"Had a nice sauna at the hotel," O'Reilly added. "Nice to open the window and see the snow coming down.
"It was like, 'Oh, welcome back to Canada.'"
The Leafs announced Wednesday that Jake Muzzin won't play again in 2022-23 because of a neck injury.
"It's hard," Tavares said. "I can't imagine how it's been for him ... how it's been up in the air. You always have the hope, the belief that things will turn a corner at some point.
"He's such a big part of this locker room."
The six-foot-four, 227-pound native of Woodstock, Ont., had one assist in four games this season, most of which was spent on long-term injured reserve.
Muzzin, whose significant injury history includes two concussions last season and being stretched off the ice to end his 2020 campaign, was limited to 47 appearances in 2021-22.
"You're always holding out hope that things might settle for him," Keefe said. "But I knew that it was probably going to be a real long shot."
The bruising 34-year-old, who won the Cup with Los Angeles in 2014 and was acquired by Toronto via trade in January 2019, has been around the team much of this season.
"Brings such a unique thing," Matthews said. "His presence, his leadership, his experience and holding guys accountable."
"Work ethic is second to none," Tavares added. "The drive to compete and succeed (is) hard to replace. We really feel for him."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press