The Blue Jackets invited prospect defenseman Mike Reilly to Columbus in April, just as the city and Nationwide Arena were in the throes of a playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was not a sales job, the club insists, even though Reilly said the pulsating arena “really got me excited for what it’s going to be like in the NHL.”
With the club’s blessing, Reilly will hold off turning pro for at least another year. He will remain at the University of Minnesota, where he’s a dynamic two-way player, a potential Hobey Baker candidate and a big man on campus.
Well, not that big. But getting bigger.
“It just makes so much sense for me, physically, to stay in college,” Reilly said. “It was a tough decision, actually, because turning pro would be exciting and because it was possible. But when I sat down with (Blue Jackets general manager) Jarmo Kekalainen and the coaching staff, and when I talked to the coaches back in Minnesota, we all agreed it was best for me.”
Reilly’s growth has been stunning. When the Blue Jackets drafted him in the fourth round (No. 98 overall) in 2011, he could have passed for an 11-year-old. He had 150 pounds stretched across a 5-foot-9 frame.
“I met him two years later, and I thought he was 13,” Blue Jackets development coach Chris Clark said.
But the past two years have been good to Reilly. After one year in the U.S. Hockey League and two at Minnesota, he’s up to 6-1 and 186 pounds.
“I’m catching up,” Reilly said. “I still need to fill out and get stronger, but there are guys who play in the league at my size. My game is my skating. My game is possession. And I don’t want to lose that.”
ESPN’s John Buccigross, who does college hockey play-by-play, described Reilly as “the most exciting player in college hockey this season” during this year’s Frozen Four.
Reilly had nine goals, 24 assists and a plus-19 rating in 41 games this past season, making him the highest-scoring defensemen in the Big Ten and eighth overall. The Gophers lost in the national championship game to Union College, but they will be heavy favorites to make it back to the Frozen Four for a 36th time.
Reilly said he hasn’t made any plans beyond next season.
“It’s a matter of when he’s ready,” Kekalainen said. “It’s up to him and his family.”
If Reilly were born in 1983 instead of 1993, he might have been given less of a chance to play in the NHL. Back then, the game was bogged down by plodders and lumberjacks who could clear a crease, not carry the puck through three zones. But Reilly mentioned Chicago’s Duncan Keith as a player he emulates. Keith has won two Stanley Cups, two Norris Trophies for top defenseman and two Olympic gold medals with Canada.
He’s also 6-1 and 192 pounds.
“The game has absolutely changed,” said Clark, who began a 12-year NHL career in 1999. “Guys like Mike aren’t ever going to outmuscle (San Jose’s) Joe Thornton or (the Blue Jackets’) Ryan Johansen in the corner. But they have skill sets that are very rare, and very hard to play against.
“You see Mike play in college, and he makes people look silly out there. He can do that in the pros someday, too.”