One silver lining to the 2014-15 Blue Jackets’ season is that management has a fairly clear picture of what’s needed to take the next step.
Call it a much shorter summer shopping list than in years past, if you will, but John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen feel strongly that the group currently in place has the right mix to contend. What they openly admit, however, is a need to improve the defense and it starts with moving the puck quicker and spending less time in their own zone.
They have a prospect under their own roof who could fill that void, but getting him in the fold is a process that's still unfolding.
Mike Reilly was drafted by the Blue Jackets (under former GM Scott Howson) in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Draft. His offensive game was outstanding, and Reilly’s skating ability and attacking style from the back end intrigued the Blue Jackets, who saw him go on to play for the University of Minnesota and become an All-American defenseman.
Reilly, 21, just completed his junior season with the Gophers, a season that ended early as they had national title hopes but exited in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He has notified the school and the Blue Jackets that he’s not planning to return for his senior season, Kekalainen said, which presents a somewhat-complicated situation for the Blue Jackets.
Because of a rule in the CBA, Reilly must sign with the Blue Jackets before June 1 or he will become an unrestricted free agent and have his choice of 30 teams rather than just one. The Blue Jackets have made it clear to Reilly how much they value him and would like him to be part of the solution here, but Reilly’s first objective this summer will be competing for Team USA at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in the Czech Republic.
His head coach on that team will be Todd Richards, a former star Gopher defenseman himself, but don’t expect a lavish recruiting pitch from the Jackets’ bench boss.
“I’m going there to coach. I’m going there to win hockey games, and it’s as simple as that,” Richards said. “I’m not going to treat him any differently than I treat the other players. I know he’s part of this organization as far as being drafted, but I’m going over there to coach. I have the unique circumstance where I get to coach one of our players over there.
“It’s a chance for him to spend some time and see how I go about my business, and a chance for me to watch him and interact with him. I’m not going over there to (recruit him); I’ve got 20-plus other guys I have to deal with.”
It’s easy to see why the Blue Jackets are high on Reilly. His ability to transport the puck with quickness and precision is one of his best attributes, and he logs a lot of minutes on the Gophers’ blue line. He’s improved each year under coach Don Lucia, and in 2014-15, he led all Gophers in assists (36) and points (42).
Reilly was also a Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist, a First-Team All American and appeared in all 39 games for Minnesota this season.
Kekalainen thinks Reilly can help the Blue Jackets, and he also thinks he can help them right away.
“We’re still very hopeful that Mike Reilly’s going to join our team and sign with us," Kekalainen said. "He would be a big, big addition to our team and the way we can get the puck out of our zone, move the puck, quick feet, speed, ability to think the game quickly — he has all those abilities.
"Now it’s up to him. We’ve done a lot to make sure that he knows where we’re at and what our plans are and how much we respect his skill set. The ball’s in his court.”
(photo credit: Univ. of Minnesota)