Mike Reilly was a scrawny kid from Chanhassen with a sharp slapshot and hockey smarts four years ago, just thankful to be the Columbus Blue Jackets’ fourth-round pick in the 2011 draft.
He went on to become a two-time Gophers All-America defenseman and a Hobey Baker Award finalist, scoring 89 points in 117 games in a Minnesota sweater. Almost as dramatic as that four-year growth spurt were his last 30 days, when he became one of the hottest free agents before ever playing an NHL minute. Columbus had Reilly’s rights for four years, and when that clock ran out earlier this month the Reilly sweepstakes was on.
Ten top NHL clubs courted Reilly, including the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who had him as a guest at a Finals game. Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and the Blue Jackets, among others, tried to lock down the 21-year-old.
But the drama ended Friday, when the one team that owned Reilly’s heart all along received his verbal commitment. Reilly is expected to sign a two-year, entry-level contract worth nearly $2 million Wednesday with the hometown Wild.
“A few years ago, I definitely did not think I’d be in this situation,” Reilly said. “But growing up as a Wild fan, you always kind of dream about it. So for this to potentially be happening is pretty surreal and an unbelievable feeling.
“It’s just a dream, and I’m just excited to get going.”
His dream took four years to develop. Reilly was drafted 98th overall in 2011 and spent the next season playing junior hockey in Canada. The following three years he grew, physically and skillfully, into one of college hockey’s best. He passed on the opportunity to sign a pro contract after an All-America sophomore season and became the Gophers’ leading scorer as a junior.
The Blue Jackets were eager to fill a roster spot with their top prospect. They reportedly offered him the best entry-level contract possible and a chance to skate with the NHL club within days after the Gophers’ season ended in the first-round of the NCAA tournament. But Reilly had other plans.
“Definitely a little unique [situation], and you have to kind of sit back and hear all sides and opportunities,” Reilly said last week, before selecting the Wild. “It’s definitely not easy, but I put myself through this, so I’ll handle it the best way I can.”
Reilly, whose dad, Mike, owns a minority share in the Wild, finished out a handful of university business classes. Then he skated with the U.S. men’s national team at the World Championships, studied abroad in China with his brothers, and eventually let the clock expire with Columbus in mid-June.
“Thinking about it, and sitting on it and going to the tournament and being around guys in the NHL and hearing their side of the story, it was good to explore,” Reilly said.
The intrigue of unrestricted free agency blossomed throughout a three-week trip to the Czech Republic that ended with Reilly and his U.S. teammates earning a bronze medal at the World Championships. Once the world traveling ended, he began to explore.
“It’s nothing bad about Columbus. Just after talking to a lot of players over [at the World Championships] … I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to kind of see what else is out there,” Reilly said. “When it came down to it, I just felt comfortable with Minnesota.”
The defenseman played club hockey with Don Lucia’s son, Mario, and even then Reilly had elite skills, the Gophers coach said.
“Mike always had those special tools,” he said. “He was always just undersized, and now he’s catching up. He’s a really good kid, and he’s been a great Gopher over the last three years.”
Blake Wheeler was the last Gopher to earn the right to market his skills after not signing with Phoenix, the team that drafted him. The forward signed with Boston in 2008 and earned roster spot in his first season. He played in the NHL YoungStars Game later that year.
Reilly is hopeful he can have the same sort of immediate impact.
“I think the fit [with the Wild] can be very good,” he said. “I think they’re a team that plays a high-tempo game and can get the puck moving. It seems like it’s going to work.”
The Wild fan base is eager to find out. They’ve lobbied for Reilly to sign with the hometown club over the past two months and can officially celebrate their victory on Wednesday.
“It’s been good love so far, fan-wise,” Reilly said. “It’s not actually official yet, so I think when it is it will be a little bit [more exciting]. But I’m excited to interact with some fans hopefully and the people that are very faithful to the state of hockey.”