Perhaps the hottest debate in NHL circles over the last 10 years is what role a modern defenseman should occupy.
Should a defenseman’s number one priority be what it’s traditionally been? To protect his net? To find himself in a responsible defensive position at all times?
Or should they be offensively oriented, concerned with jumping into the play and moving the puck up ice?
We’ve seen debate manifest itself in a bunch of different flash points. The 2016 Norris Trophy was a great example, where older-school writers backed the more traditional Drew Doughty over Erik Karlsson, who is regarded by some as the perfect modern defenseman.
But it’s not just awards voting where we see this. All around the league, we can pick examples of players whose value is contested. Offensive defenseman P.K. Subban has taken heat for his perceived defensive flaws (among other things). Brady Skjei rates well in advanced metrics, but he gets placed in the lineup behind seemingly lesser players in Nick Holden and Dan Girardi.
We in St. Paul aren’t strangers to this, either. This same debate has played out in the State of Hockey, with the upcoming expansion draft pitting Jonas Brodin versus Matt Dumba.
We will not be getting into this at this time.
Instead, I want to talk about another offensive defenseman in the Wild’s system: Mike Reilly.
Reilly came on board to Minnesota two summers ago, signing as a free agent after his junior year at the University of Minnesota. His first pro season was somewhat tumultuous. The first half of his season was spent on the Iowa Wild- the AHL’s worst team.
Not only was the talent of Iowa’s skaters sub-par, but their goaltending was atrocious. This meant that there were few people on the team to take advantage of Reilly’s skills, giving him a low reward for any risks he took. It also meant when those risks went awry, things would end with a puck in Iowa’s net.
He finished the season with a -27 in Des Moines, and at one point Minnesota called him up not as a reward for his performance, but to get him out of that bad situation.
Eventually he got some run in the lineup, and once given a chance, he performed well. He got a modest 7 points in 29 games, but he impressed with his poise with the puck.
That’s not to say that there weren’t warts to his game. There definitely were. Despite getting very favorable deployment, teams were firing shots at will on Minnesota with Reilly on the ice. His mission going into last offseason? Getting his defense NHL-ready.
So it had to be a bummer for Reilly to have done just that and get even less playing time than last season.
Reilly played just 17 games in 2016-17, but he was able to do two things in his limited time that he didn’t in his rookie year. The first was tighten up defensively. He improved in just about every metric possible- Corsi (shot attempts) allowed, shots allowed, scoring chances allowed.
Granted, he didn’t re-make his defense to the point where it was above-average, or maybe even average. But he got to the point where he wasn’t dead last on the team. He even accomplished this while starting fewer times in the offensive zone than the year previous (though his minutes were still sheltered).
The second thing that he did was actually get the better of play. With Reilly on the ice, Minnesota out-scored their opponents 9-8, while earning 51.8% of the shot share, and a crazy-stupid 68.8% of scoring chances. This was all in a small sample, but when protected, Reilly showed he could be a net-positive player for the Wild.
While Bruce Boudreau is a coach who clearly gets analytical concepts and is able to use them to his benefit, he’s still an old-school guy. Things like physicality still matter to him. So while in other organizations, Reilly would be able to break in on the third-pair, he didn’t get much of a shot in Minnesota. Nate Prosser would get those minutes. Christian Folin would get that playing time.
It’s unfortunate, because while Prosser and Folin are regarded as “safer” players by those who value stay-at-home defensemen, Minnesota played much better with Reilly on the ice. Ultimately, that’s what should matter, but old biases stopped Reilly from getting an opportunity that he worked hard for and deserved.
That’s not to say Reilly can’t do more to put his fate into his own hands. He can still use work on his defensive game. Perhaps adding more strength to his 6’2” frame can allow him to hold his own a bit more in the physical aspect of the game.
But his strengths- his offensive instincts, ability to move the puck, and to run a power play- those are things the Wild need more of.
Folin is 26. Prosser is 30. Neither played more than 15 minutes a night. Their contracts are both expiring this season. Neither is going to have a future past being third-pair defensemen.
On the other hand, Reilly will be 24 at the start of next season and has Top-4, power play quarterback potential. He’s shown that he can hack it in the AHL. He’s had two decent stints with the Wild. If Boudreau isn’t going to show trust in Reilly next season, when does that moment come?
Reilly held up his end of the bargain this year. Now it’s time for his coaches to reward him.
And if Reilly can make the same kinds of strides he showed this year, he’ll likely reward his coaches in turn.
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