Cal O'Reilly has certainly made the most of his opportunity this season with the Nashville Predators.
Going into this season, the Preds were a team that had traded away its captain and first-line center in Jason Arnott and acquired another center, free agent Matthew Lombardi.
The idea was that O'Reilly would challenge for a top three center position with the Preds, after Lombardi and David Legwand.
The 23 year old from Seaforth, Ontario would quickly get a chance to play on a line with veteran Steve Sullivan on right wing and last season's breakout player Patrick Hornqvist on the left side. Coach Trotz seemed to have no problem placing Sullivan on a line with a pair of 23 year olds, with the 36-year-old Sullivan adding his influence to the line.
As the season started for the Predators, so did their injuries.
Lombardi suffered a concussion early in the season during the second game of the season vs. Chicago, where he tumbled into the boards.
Coach Trotz needed to find someone to play those minutes at center.
Marcel Goc had his chance, playing with veteran right winger and last season's team leading scorer JP Dumont and young Colin Wilson, but injuries forced the German out of the Preds lineup two games later.
David Legwand appeared to have his chance, but the chemistry wasn't right, so Colin Wilson was moved back to center.
The Nashville coaching staff gave the line of Sullivan, O'Reilly and Hornqvist the chance to be the first line. They increased their playing time and Coach Trotz leaned on this unit as injuries to Goc, Martin Erat and Lombardi basically took what would comprise as the second line right out of the lineup.
The results have been positive for O'Reilly. He is playing with confidence and the line with Sullivan and Hornqvist can be dangerous at times. All three players have combined for 32 points in the Preds' first 17 games.
For O'Reilly it's a reward for his hard work and dedication that takes him back to his junior days playing center for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. A player with great vision and soft hands, O'Reilly had 81 assists in his last juniors season and was selected by the Predators in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft in the fifth round.
Overall, O'Reilly had 172 points in his last two seasons—including 131 of those points being assists.
A former junior teammate of current Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steve Downie, O'Reilly only incurred eight minutes in penalties during that last season in Windsor and had only 26 minutes over three seasons. Needless to say that Cal O'Reilly didn't take stupid or dumb penalties like Downie did.
In 34 games last season with the Preds, O'Reilly had four minutes in the penalty box. O'Reilly could very well be on pace to be considered for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as the league's most gentlemanly player. Currently O'Reilly has no penalty minutes after 17 games thus far this season. Ironically, Colin Wilson and Marcel Goc also have no penalty minutes thus far this season.
After two-and-a-half seasons playing for the Predators' AHL affiliate in Milwaukee, O'Reilly displayed the same puck distributing style of play by tallying assist totals of 47 and 63 for the Admirals. O'Reilly had 56 assists before his recall on January 8, 2010 after 67 games, scoring 69 points. Once joining the Preds, O'Reilly was able to play in 11 games, adding five points.
This season O'Reilly has been a consistent performer for the Preds, appearing in all 17 games to date, scoring four goals and adding nine assists. His 13 points lead the team.
As Matthew Lombardi still deals with the symptoms of his concussion he suffered early in the season, the Predators coaching staff seems to be pleased with Cal's ability to lead the top line. A return for Lombardi will only strengthen the club that is so weak down the middle right now.
While the Predators started off hot, going unbeaten to start the season, they recently went through a turbulent West Coast swing and now find themselves on an East Coast trip.
Center David Legwand was injured during the Preds' 3-0 win in Montreal on Thursday night, and is listed as day-to-day. The Preds play Carolina on Saturday and Columbus on Monday night before returning home next Wednesday vs. St. Louis.
As for O'Reilly, he continues to work hard game in and game out, and is being rewarded for that effort both on the score sheet and with the coaching staff.
Mike MacDonald is a Featured Columnist covering the Nashville Predators and the NHL
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