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Jackets' prospect Reilly making strides with Gophers

by Dan Myers

MINNEAPOLIS -- University of Minnesota assistant coach Mike Guentzel has coached plenty of players who went on to become NHL defensemen in his time with the Golden Gophers.

Since becoming an assistant coach at Minnesota 20 years ago, Guentzel has seen players such as Jordan Leopold of the St. Louis Blues, Paul Martin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Gologoski of the Dallas Stars and Erik Johnson of the Colorado Avalanche come through the program en route to the NHL.

He has another potential NHL defenseman under his watch now in Mike Reilly, a fourth-round pick (No. 98) of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2011.

Reilly, a sophomore, is a late-bloomer who finally is starting to add some pro size to his already elite skill.

"When I was in ninth grade I was about 5-foot-4 and about 100 pounds," Reilly said. "Ever since then I've just kept growing and getting stronger. There's still a lot of muscle I can put on. I'm just focused on putting on the correct muscle."

He measured 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds when he was drafted, and last season as a freshman was listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds. This season he's grown another inch taller and more impressively added 15 pounds to his frame.

The added muscle has been a game-changer for Reilly, who Monday was named the Big Ten Conference's Defensive Player of the Year and to the All-Big Ten First Team.

"It's a credit to him," Guentzel said. "He gained 15 points last summer and with strength comes a confidence adjustment. He's better in all situations, he can play in all three zones and he's still got some room to grow in his game."

Reilly always has had a reputation as a skilled defenseman capable of contributing in the offensive end. In 36 games this season he has eight goals and 21 assists -- numbers that ranked him first among Big Ten defensemen and in the top 10 nationally.

The added muscle and a commitment to improving in all three zones has yielded other impressive results.

"His ability to go back and retrieve a puck is improved," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "His ability to make a play under contact is improved and his play without the puck is much, much better."

The added bulk has given Reilly an ability to make plays that perhaps he couldn't make last season.

"I didn't have a ton of confidence last year to make as many plays," Reilly said. "This year I've made more plays, and if I make a mistake I won't get yelled at as much."

That element of risk taking is something Lucia said is something Reilly has really made strides in over the past 12 months. Call it risk management.

"Mike's growth is picking and choosing rather than always playing a high-risk game," Lucia said. "He's not playing as risky a game as he was a year ago and he's a little more patient offensively. He's actually creating more offense because of that."

But that doesn't mean Reilly is afraid of taking risks. Lucia said Reilly has the green light to get involved offensively whenever he sees fit.

"He's the kind of guy that if he does make a mistake it's not going to bother him the next shift," Lucia said. "Some guys who make mistakes get rattled. Mike's not going to get rattled. You need to have high-level athletes that have a bit of amnesia when they make a mistake."

"This year I'm trying to make better decisions and that's something I'll need to carry with me to the next level," Reilly said.

Guentzel said Reilly has the pedigree to play at the next level and said he compares well with Martin, who saw a similar rise in his offensive production between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Martin also is 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, a weight Reilly said he would like to reach eventually.

"Similar style, body. I think his shooting when he came in was actually a little better than Paul's," Guentzel said of Reilly. "Ability to move the puck, both are really good with their sticks, move well. … I think he's the easy comparison of any of the guys I've been able to coach here."

It's high praise for Reilly. Martin is in his 10th NHL season and has represented the United States twice in the Olympics. But that's what people at Minnesota think of him and they expect that his best days are ahead of him.

"If you're a really good player here you can play in all situations -- power play, penalty kill, 5-on-5, 4-on-4, and you can play against the other team's [first and second lines] and still do your thing offensively," Guentzel said. "That to me is where he has to get to and he is getting there."

For now Reilly is locked in on trying to help the Gophers win their first NCAA championship in 11 years. A winner in his final season of junior hockey with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League as well as consecutive conference championships to open his collegiate career, Reilly said he came to Minnesota for a chance to win the ultimate prize.

If the Gophers are able to get to the NCAA Frozen Four next month in Philadelphia, chances are Reilly will have played a big part.

"When you watch our games, Mike Reilly stands out because he's got the puck a lot," Lucia said. "When he's got the puck that's when he can really impact the game.

"Good things happen when he has the puck."

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