by Tom Witosky | AHL On The Beat Archive
When the Iowa Wild went into overtime with the Milwaukee Admirals last Saturday, rookie defenseman Mike Reilly wanted back on the ice.
After all, he had been on the ice when Milwaukee scored both of its goals — including the one to tie the match with just barely a minute left in regulation.
Less than three minutes into the overtime, the 22-year-old former Minnesota Gopher showed again why many think he won’t be in the American Hockey League for very long.
“It felt good to get it,” Reilly said of his slap shot that trickled through the pads of Milwaukee’s goalie Marek Mazanec for the 3-2 win. “I felt like if I got a shot off, it would find its way in. It definitely felt good.”
When it comes to playing under pressure, Reilly, a fourth-round draft choice in 2011 for the Columbus Blue Jackets, is one of those players who wants to be in the middle of it, according to David Cunniff, Iowa’s associate coach.
“When the game is on the line, Mike wants to be on the ice whether we are up by a goal or down by a goal,” Cunniff, who oversees Iowa’s defensemen, said. “I’ve had players that when the game is on the line, you will look and wonder if they want to be out there. You don’t have that with Mike.”
Prior to the beginning of this season, major speculation grew that Reilly, who played the last three years for the University of Minnesota, might actually make the NHL Wild. In his third and final year in college hockey, Reilly had finished the season as the top scoring defenseman in Division I hockey and his 42 points led his team in scoring that season. He also earned a nomination for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player.
His skating ability and his willingness to attack the goal from the blue line is suited to the Minnesota style of puck possession hockey. He possesses a strong slap shot and has displayed an ability to coordinate a power play attack.
After announcing he would not sign with the Columbus, Reilly received free agent offers from a number of teams that included Pittsburgh, Chicago and Minnesota. At the end, Reilly, whose family lives in nearby Chanhassen, Minn., chose to sign a two-year deal with the hometown club.
“It was a close decision,” Reilly said. “But the opportunity in Minnesota was definitely great. I liked the way they played and saw the opportunity as too good to pass up.”
Reilly also said that a major factor was that he would be working with a top defensive coach, Rick Wilson, a Minnesota assistant, within a system that suits his style of hockey.
“He has been good working and developing young players. He lets them play their game and doesn’t try to make them someone they aren’t, Reilly said.
Despite some speculation, Minnesota’s front office decided that Reilly should begin his professional career in Iowa where he would be in the lineup every night and have a chance to develop his game out of the NHL’s bright lights.
“I was definitely disappointed,” Reilly said, adding he had thought his work in training camp improved steadily. “But coming down here to learn from our coaches is something that is going to help me. I know it is going to work out.”
After arriving in Des Moines just before the start of the season, Reilly quickly became a key cog in the Iowa Wild’s structure on offense, defense and special teams. He and fellow rookie defenseman Gustav Olofsson are paired together on the power play and on the penalty kill and could become NHL linemates for a long time.
John Torchetti, Iowa’s head coach, said that Reilly has learned quickly and is just about at the end of the “crawl, walk, run, run fast” development cycle that most young players experience when they first arrive in professional hockey.
“He is between walk and run right now,” Torchetti said. “His first three or four games, he was trying to read what was going on, but he wasn’t moving. Now he is reading it and moving and getting closer to doing it fast. He is only going to get better.”
As the team’s third-ranked scorer with four points, but a minus-12 plus/minus rating, Reilly said that he is learning to resist the urge to always be part of the offensive attack.
“It is still trying to play my game but also recognize that my job is to defend first,” he said. “We have had some tough breaks here to begin with, but I feel more comfortable and finding myself where I am supposed to be more often.”
Torchetti, who is credited with helping accelerate the development of Matt Dumba last season into a top-six NHL defenseman, said Reilly is further along in the process partially because he is older, but also because he has the right temperament.
“I don’t think anything fazes him,” Torchetti said. “He stays even keel. He asks question and understands what he has to do to become better to be an NHL prospect.”
Reilly agreed, adding he doesn’t feel pressure.
“I don’t try to put too much pressure on myself, it is just part of the development as I get started in my pro career,” he said. “I would have liked to start up with the big club, but I definitely see how it is important for me to learn the pro game and be put in a lot of situations whether we are up a goal or down a goal.
“I probably wouldn’t be put in those kinds of situations if I was up with the big club right now.”
Cunniff said that Reilly has worked hard at honing his defensive skills and is becoming much more of a two-way player. He also said that the possibility of working with Reilly was an incentive for him to become a member of Iowa’s coaching staff.
“He has high expectations for himself,” Cunniff said. “All the great players do.”