Mike Reilly is in the right place at the right time.
The 25-year-old defenceman has been one of the surprises in what has been a surprising start for the Montreal Canadiens.
Reilly has averaged nearly 22 minutes — only Jeff Petry has been on the ice longer — and has been a perfect fit in a system which stresses speed and skating. The Canadiens used their speed to earn a point in a 3-2 overtime loss to Toronto and then skated to a 5-1 win in Pittsburgh.
Reilly was spinning his wheels with the defence-rich Minnesota Wild but he has found a home in Montreal. He played well here after being acquired at the trade deadline last season and has progressed to the point where he is playing a top-four role.
“We saw the potential,” said coach Claude Julien. “You see potential in a lot of players, but whether it comes to fruition is another matter. In his case, he’s stepped it up this season. When he came here, we knew he had good vision, he was a puck-mover and he had a good stick to defend. We knew he wasn’t a big, physical player but all of those things we talked about, they’ve all gone up at least a notch.”
Reilly said he set a high standard for himself this season.
“The first part was coming into camp in great shape, trying to make an impression and I think I did that and it’s carried over into the regular season,” Reilly said after practice Monday in Brossard. “It’s only two games on but I think it’s going pretty good.”
Reilly is taking advantage of Shea Weber’s absence through at least December.
“You can’t replace a guy like that, but it opens opportunities and potentially more ice time,” said Reilly.
His window of opportunity began with the trade. He played well in 17 games with his new team and was encouraged by his exit interviews with Julien and Habs general manager Marc Bergevin.
He was also encouraged by the off-season changes.
“The guys we brought in are fast and that’s the way the league is going,” said Reilly. “I think the one line with Paulie (Byron, Max Domi and Artturi Lehkonen) is the fastest line in the NHL. I think that helps me out because I can get the puck up to them and be the fourth guy in and try to make plays and help them out.”
It was no surprise when the Minnesota-raised Reilly elected to sign with the Wild in 2015. He came out of the University of Minnesota where he followed in the path set by his father Mike — a Canadiens draft choice in 1977 — and his older brothers, twins Connor and Ryan. He was drafted by Columbus in 2011 but he declined the Blue Jackets and signed with the Wild after being courted by 13 teams.
He spent the next three years bouncing between the Wild and its farm team in Iowa.
“The defencemen they had there were pretty good,” said Reilly. “Ryan Suter is one of the best guys in the NHL and a couple of young guys were coming into their primes.”
Ironically, one of the players Reilly was battling for a job in Minnesota was another smooth-skating U.S. college product named Gustav Olofsson. The Canadiens acquired Olofsson last week and assigned him to the Laval Rocket.
The schedule gives the Canadiens some time to rest and practice before their home opener Thursday nightagainst the Los Angeles Kings (7:30 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN-690 Radio).
Look for Julien to stick to the same lineup, which enjoyed success on the road but there are changes coming. Jacob de la Rose, who started the season on the injured reserve list following a “cardiac episode”, returned to practice Monday. He has not been cleared to play, but a roster decision will have to be made when he’s ready.
Nicolas Deslauriers is also inching his way back from a facial injury. He’s sporting a full cage as he skates with strength coach Patrick Delisle-Houde.