Entering the 2018-19 season, the biggest question the Montreal Canadiens had was who was going to play with Shea Weber? Although Weber is out until mid-December, the Canadiens were still in the market for a puck-moving defenceman to compliment the Habs Captain. Last season it was Victor Mete who cracked the Habs roster out of camp and earned the privilege. This season, however, there has been another player who looks like he could be the perfect partner for Weber. His name is Mike Reilly.
The Canadiens had two big questions entering the off-season. Who was going to play centre, and who was going to pair with Shea Weber on the Habs top unit? The first question was answered leading up to and at the draft. First, the Habs acquired Max Domi for Alex Galchenyuk, then drafted Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third overall pick.
The latter was still up in the air. The Habs offered Simon Despres a PTO as well as signed Xavier Ouellet but they never went out to make a significant splash to find Weber’s future partner. That’s because the answer was already within the organization.
Insert Mike Reilly
Mike Reilly was acquired by the Canadiens from the Minnesota Wild at last year’s trade deadline for a fifth-round pick in 2019. The pick actually belongs to the Washington Capitals and was acquired by the Habs earlier in the week for Jakub Jerabek. That series of trades is now looking like an absolute steal for general manager Marc Bergevin. Reilly has earned his place as a top-four defenceman on the Canadiens. He ended last season on a high note scoring eight points in 19 games and finishing with a plus-one rating.
Reilly was originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. However, Reilly never played a game for the Blue Jackets, as he elected to stay at the University of Minnesota. Reilly became a free agent in the summer of 2015, where he decided to sign with the Minnesota Wild. The team which his dad, Mike Reilly Sr., is actually a minority investor with the ownership group.
Reilly couldn’t really crack the lineup as an everyday NHL player with the Wild, as he played 84 games over three seasons, and spent most of his time with the AHL affiliate Iowa Wild. Now with the Canadiens, he’s looking to prove the Wild gave up on him too soon.
Puck Mover the Canadiens Needed
The Canadiens have been wanting a puck mover who possesses great speed to slot in next to the elite defender Weber. This is exactly what Mike Reilly is. The best part of Reilly’s game is his ability to move the puck up the ice in transition. Reilly makes a great first past out of the zone and his skating ability allows him to move up the ice quickly to either carry the puck into the zone or join the attack on the rush. He also has the ability to play the point on the power play, something the Habs need with Weber out of the lineup. Whether the Habs will stick to four forwards on the power play or put Reilly with Weber to try and set up his one-timer once Weber returns remains to be seen.
Reilly has great agility and edgework which gives him the ability to walk the line to look for an open lane or find an opponent teammate to pass the puck off too. He has a decent set of hands allowing him to control the puck and deke around his opponents in tight spaces. This was on full display on Wednesday when the Habs hosted the St. Louis Blues. Reilly held the line and deked around Brayden Schenn giving himself an open lane to the net. He ripped a shot home on the power play to give the Habs a 2-1 lead.
So far Reilly has put up three points in six games and has been on the ice for 40% of the Canadiens goals this season, largely due to his ability to move the puck out of the zone quickly and efficiently and in transition.
Developing a Two-Way Game
Entering the league Reilly was known as an offensive defenceman. However, he has really put in the work to develop his defensive game to become a more complete two-way player. It was the biggest knock on him as he would get caught out of position at times. Now Reilly has tightened up his game as is relied upon by coach Claude Julien to play tough defensive minutes. Reilly starts his shifts in the defensive zone 60.2 percent of the time. This is second amongst Canadiens defenceman, just after his current partner Noah Juulsen. This shows Julien is most comfortable with the pair being out there to defend against the opposing team’s top players, as well as trust them to get control of the puck and move it out of the zone.
Reilly has also learned how to fill the lanes better in order to become a more efficient shot blocker. So far this season, Reilly has nine blocked shots in six games. This is already half the amount of blocks he had in 38 games with the Minnesota Wild last season.
It’s also helping Reilly be able to anticipate plays more effectively, resulting in more takeaways for his team. Reilly already has two takeaways, which is only two less than he had in Minnesota last season.
Ready for the Top Pairing
So far this season, Reilly has looked like he is ready for the role as Shea Weber’s partner, once he returns from injury. He already possessed the offensive puck-moving style of play which the Habs were looking for to compliment Weber. Now that he has developed his play in the defensive zone, Julien can trust him to take on those big, tough minutes against the opposing team’s top players. At only 25, Reilly is just beginning to enter his prime and should be able to completely shatter his personal best in every stat category. He looks like an absolute steal for the Montreal Canadiens.
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