Mike Reilly is no longer being wooed. He’s just one of the rookies now.
Three months ago, a dozen teams were in a frenzy to sign the smooth-skating University of Minnesota defenseman.
Stanley Cup finalist general managers Stan Bowman and Steve Yzerman flew to meet face to face with Reilly in the middle of the Chicago-Tampa Bay Finals. Reilly trained and watched playoff games with one of hockey’s greatest stars, Sidney Crosby, who tried to persuade him to sign with Pittsburgh. He fielded calls from players likes Zach Parise, who tried to nudge him toward his hometown Wild.
But three months after the Wild won those sweepstakes that Reilly called humbling and stressful, Reilly knows he’s not a lock to make the Wild out of training camp.
He’s dressing in the minor league locker room, living in the team hotel and getting tons of tough love from the coaches.
“There’s no guarantees, especially as a young guy,” said Reilly, 22, whose pro debut comes Monday night in the Wild’s exhibition opener against the Buffalo Sabres. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past or anything like that.
“The Wild have a very deep team. … Wherever the stones lay, that’s where I’ll be at the start of the season.”
Reilly became a free agent by not signing four years after the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted him in the fourth round. He says it was simply a “gut feel” that he wanted to start his career fresh elsewhere.
The 2015 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Hobey Baker finalist has pleased Wild coach Mike Yeo thus far, but the Wild’s throwing a lot of new stuff at him.
“As a young guy, I’ve got to come in and kind of shut my mouth and be a sponge to the older guys and learn a lot from the coaches,” Reilly said. “There are a lot of bad habits in my game that some people might not notice, but those little things are going to help me be successful in pro hockey. This being my first year in the pros, it’s going to be a learning curve.”
Reilly says he sometimes drifts and gets himself out of position when he should just hold his ground.
“The system is a little different than what I’ve played in the past,” he said. “I’m used to a little more man-on-man in a sense, but I’ll keep learning. There are going to be times when coaches are going to stop the drills like they did to me a lot [Friday], but that’s all part of the process.”
Reilly’s former college coach, Don Lucia, is watching from afar. He calls Reilly a “real elite player because he sees the ice so well, has such a low panic point and, like a lot of elite players, he’s got a short memory. He’s got special gifts, but he’ll have to transition for the next level.
“Do I think he will do it? Yes I do. He’s just got too much ability not to. Is it going to happen in October, December, the following year? You just don’t know.”
Yeo has indicated Reilly would have to crack the power-play point to make the team, and that won’t be easy.
“Mike’s a power-play guy,” Lucia echoed. “If he’s going to be effective, he’s got to be effective in that role. So do they have space for him now? Is he going to play ahead of [Matt] Dumba or [Ryan] Suter or [Jared] Spurgeon or [Marco] Scandella? If he’s making the roster out of camp, it’s not to be a shutdown defender at this stage of his career.”
It’s early, but that’s why unless there’s an injury or Reilly wows in camp, it would seem more probable he starts in Iowa.
Suter, Scandella, Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Nate Prosser and Christian Folin are on one-way contracts. Dumba is basically a roster lock.
That’s seven defensemen, so if it looks like Reilly will be sitting out or playing 10 minutes a night consistently, the Wild brass probably would prefer him running the first power play and logging 20 minutes a night in the minors.
“I had a fun three years at the University of Minnesota, but now this is my job, so I have to dial it in and focus every day and get rid of the distractions and get ready,” Reilly said.