Mike Reilly. (Ted Sandeen)
Minnesota is taking a patient approach to preparing the defensive prospect. That path takes Reilly through the heart of Iowa.
For three years, Mike Reilly had his nose in a book at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. In his first year of pro, he’s clearly changed his major to film studies at the post-secondary institution known as the American League.
Like every young defenseman, Reilly has found himself spending much of his time off the ice in front of a monitor with him being the star of the show. In his first season with the Iowa Wild, Reilly is under the tutelage of Professor John Torchetti, the Wild’s coach and the man charged with ushering Reilly through the most difficult adjustment of his hockey career.
Scouts are unanimous in their opinion that a player’s most difficult transition is from junior or college to the AHL, and there are a select few who avoid that awkward stage. Even the most sought-after college free agents, who are mostly more mature, can get a rude awakening to life in the pros. How long Reilly works in the minors is uncertain, but there doesn’t appear to be a rush to jam him into an NHL lineup. “Usually he’ll watch (video) with his partner,” Torchetti said of Reilly’s off-ice sessions. “And when I have time for 1-on-1, I always want to spend that time with certain guys. I want to hear how they think the game, what they think of their positioning, why they picked a certain play, and that’s how you get to know them.”
Torchetti is learning Reilly is a quick study when it comes to grasping the defensive/positioning aspects of the game. He already knew the offensive skills were there and the skating and puck moving abilities were a huge part of Reilly’s game (he averaged better than a point per game in his final NCAA season). The issue is developing Reilly into a defenseman who can be counted on in all situations at the NHL level. It will happen after he learns better defensive positioning, learns the nuances of the pro game and acquires the strength and bulk necessary to defend against the best players on the planet.
But Reilly is not unaccustomed to learning on the fly and keeping his head about him during chaos. After all, he had to do it this past summer when he decided to pass on signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that drafted him 98th overall in 2011, to become an unrestricted free agent at 21. His free agency kicked off a frenzy.
Nine teams expressed an interest in signing him. He decided to sign a two-year deal with his hometown Wild, a franchise with which his father, Michael Sr., is an ownership group investor. The family ties didn’t hurt, but neither did a call from Zach Parise when he was trying to make his decision. “In June it definitely got pretty crazy,” Reilly said. “It was a unique experience for me to be in and it was really hectic for those few weeks. I was kind of waiting for it to calm down and get back to just being me.”
A good showing in Minnesota’s rookie camp did not result in full-time employment with the parent club off the hop, but the Wild would not have pursued him so vigorously had they not been convinced he will one day be a very good NHL defenseman. They watched as Mathew Dumba, who now has a full-time job on Minnesota’s blueline, had hiccups as a pro – and incidentally had a number of video sessions with Torchetti in the minors for 20 games last season – and they’re going to be patient with Reilly as well. Reilly was recalled to the NHL on Dec. 2 but didn't appear in a game before
It’s a young defense in Minnesota. Ryan Suter, 30, is the only regular older than 25. Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Dumba and Swedish rookie Christian Folin are still growing as players. And the hope is Reilly can join that group in the next couple of seasons. “At this stage of his development, the most important thing is to make sure he’s getting the reps, getting a lot of games, getting a lot of ice time,” said Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher. “We’re taking the time to make the right decision.”