He knew it was just business, an unfortunate ripple effect of a team squeezed hard against the salary cap. Still, every time Mike Reilly headed south on Interstate 35, he felt a little letdown.
The Wild defenseman has made that trip to Iowa twice this season, when Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher needed to clear cap space for the forwards called up to fill gaps on his injury-riddled roster.
“He came right up to me and told me the deal,” Reilly said Monday, after a Wild practice at Xcel Energy Center. “I respect that, but obviously, it’s tough. I know I belong here.”
That might be the biggest difference for Reilly in his third pro season. In seven games with the Wild this fall, the former Gopher who grew up in Chanhassen has four assists and a growing reserve of confidence.
Reilly, 24, is working to round out a game defined by his offensive skill. After spending most of the past two seasons with the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa, he signed a one-way contract last July, worth $1.45 million over two years. The faith the Wild has shown in him has stoked the same quality in himself, giving him the self-assurance necessary to stake a permanent place in the lineup.
He still turns heads with his offensive chops, such as the perfect pass he delivered to Mikko Koivu for the game-winning goal Saturday against Pittsburgh. Just as importantly, Reilly is improving his reliability in the defensive zone, an area he will keep refining during a Wild homestand that continues Tuesday against Winnipeg.
“I think I’m playing well,” said Reilly, who has played in seven of nine games. “I’m taking care of the D zone pretty good, trying to have good habits like boxing out, getting sticks in front and getting pucks back quick to get up to our skilled forwards. I’m trying to keep it simple, and I think that’s slowly leading to more things with opening up the ice and me being able to jump up into the play.
“I’m feeling comfortable. I’m just trying to go out there and play my game and be confident with the puck.”
That attitude is the biggest change coach Bruce Boudreau has seen in his young defenseman. Reilly has been playing with veteran Kyle Quincey on the third pairing and is averaging 13 minutes, 21 seconds of ice time per game, about a minute more than his average in 46 games over the past two seasons.
With only 53 games of NHL experience, Reilly still is learning through error and repetition. Boudreau said having a sense of belonging can lend peace of mind — a critical factor in keeping a youngster focused and upbeat. Getting the one-way contract in the offseason boosted Reilly’s self-esteem, the coach said, and relieved some of the pressure to play perfect hockey.
“He’s skating with the puck better, because I think he feels like he’s there,” Boudreau said. “He’s not just, ‘Oh, if I make a mistake, bad things are going to happen.’
“Getting older and gaining experience really helps you. He’s just playing with a lot more confidence.”
Reilly concurred, adding that he felt that way even before the season. He came into training camp this fall expecting to make the team, and he spent the summer getting his body ready for a step forward. Reilly added some weight without sacrificing any of his speed or agility, and he concentrated on improving his lower-body and core strength.
Having more of an NHL-ready physique — and greater familiarity with teammates and systems — positioned him to get off to a good start. Reilly said he expects to be held accountable despite his youth, yet he has learned to let go of mistakes quickly and move on. That has helped him keep his play consistent, though he doesn’t forget entirely; after each game, he analyzes his miscues and notes what he needs to work on in practice.
Because Reilly can be assigned to the minors without waivers, he got tabbed to go to Iowa when the Wild needed salary-cap space to call up forwards. He was away for only a few days, though that was still long enough to remind him how grateful he is to be in the NHL — and what he has to do to make himself a mainstay.
“Little adversities like that, you have to just take them in stride and know it will help you in the long run,” he said. “I know things don’t happen overnight. I just want to slowly establish myself, slowly build my role. And I think I can make an impact on this team.”
• Boudreau is uncertain whether forward Nino Niederreiter will play Tuesday. Niederreiter, who has missed six games because of a sprained left ankle, said Monday that he feels “a lot better” and has resumed practicing.
• The Wild recalled forwards Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek from Iowa on Monday.