Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo and Mike Reilly
both agreed following the Sunday night preseason game against the Winnipeg Jets: It was the best performance of the 22-year-old rookie's training camp.
For a rookie, the confidence of knowing he belongs is very key. And after surviving a roster cut earlier in the day that reduced the Wild's group from 44 to 27, it was confidence instilling.
"I didn't really know after [Saturday] night's game if I was going to be sticking around or not," Reilly said. "I'm lucky to still be here."
The biggest difference in Reilly's game on Sunday was his puck control and offensive involvement. It's Reilly's biggest asset, and one that for him can be tough to display when he's trying to showcase his defensive accountability.
"I had a conversation with him the other day, and it was just making sure you don't make the mistake of being too safe," Yeo said. "You have to prove that you can go out there and not hurt the team, but at the same time, you have to find a way to play to your strengths, and create, and you don't make the team by being safe."
Reilly has been put through the paces throughout training camp after signing with the Wild July 1.
And when camp officially opened on Sept. 18, Reilly made one thing very clear: He wasn't expecting anything to be handed to him.
"There are no guarantees, especially as a young guy, it doesn't matter what you've done in the past or anything like that," Reilly said. "The Wild have a very deep team, and … the defensemen are unbelievable, a lot of great versatile defensemen that can defend and also contribute in the offensive zone as well."
If spots on the regular season roster were awarded on past merit, as far as first-year players go, Reilly's case would be as compelling as anyone's. In three years at the University of Minnesota, Reilly blossomed into one of the top defenseman in college hockey.
He represented the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championship, was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, presented to the nation's top college player, and led the University of Minnesota to a National Championship game appearance.
Raised in Minnesota, thriving as a Golden Gopher, and then signing with the hometown Wild, Sharpie-ing Reilly's name onto the opening night roster may have been a foregone conclusion for some.
But not for Reilly.
"For me, I try to come in and play my game, and wherever the stones lie, that's where I'm going to be," Reilly said on the second day of training camp. "This being my first year in pro, it's going to be a learning curve, but I just have to be confident and play my game."
The learning curve started and class was in session when training camp began.
"The systems are a little bit different than I played in the past — I'm kind of used to a little man-on-man — but I keep learning," Reilly said.
And by design, Wild coaches have been critiquing and correcting Reilly at each step, according to Yeo.
"I won't let him off the hook with anything in practice, I don't think that benefits him," Yeo said.
When the puck dropped though, and Reilly took the ice — he's played in four of five of Minnesota's preseason games — the coaching continued, but the message was delivered differently.
"I let him know once we get into the game tonight I want him to play the game, and I'm not going to be breathing down his neck every time something good or bad happens," Yeo said prior to Reilly's preseason debut. "I want him to be able to stay focused on his game, and we have plenty of time to work out any little kinks."
And to Reilly's credit, and according to Yeo, the instructions the coaches are giving him are making their way into his game.
"He's coming along," Yeo said after the Wild's game in Saskatoon on Saturday. "It's just a work in progress. Everything is new for him, and you can see that he's working hard to try to apply the systems, and try to show that he's capable of playing the game the way we want it to be played."
There has been plenty for Reilly to juggle: The adjustment to turning pro, the physical strain of an NHL training camp, and the outside noise that comes with being a successful, local talent.
"In a sense a lot of people might think there that could be outside distractions, but for me, it's my job now," Reilly said. "I had a fun three years at the University of Minnesota, but now it's my job, so I have to dial it in, and focus it in, and get rid of the distractions in a sense to get ready for each game and each practice."
With Reilly currently in Duluth with the other 26 remaining Wild players for a team-building trip, the blueprint to the start of his professional career has gone unchanged.
"The plan with [Reilly] was pretty much this all along," Yeo said. "To give him as much opportunity to be around our group, to learn things, and to show what he can do before we come to any kind of decision on him."