TAMPA BAY — “A guy in my position can never get too comfortable,” said Mike Reilly as he was peeling off his equipment following the Montreal Canadiens‘ practice at Amalie Arena on Friday.
The defenceman has lived that reality throughout his NHL career to date — as a 12-minute-a-night depth guy in Minnesota and as a quasi-regular defenceman who’s bounced around the lineup in Montreal — and he knows it’s one he’ll have to navigate moving forward, too. Is that on his mind as the Feb. 25 trade deadline approaches? He says it’s not necessarily front and centre, but acknowledges that it’s there, looming in the background at all times.
It should be. After Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin addressed some needs on the fourth line last week with the acquisitions of Nate Thompson and Dale Weise, the buzz is growing by the day that he’s searching for a defenceman who can potentially supplant Reilly on the team’s second pair.
When we asked Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Friday if he’s found the balance he’s looking for on the team’s back end, his answer did nothing to dissuade the notion that change could be on its way.
“I’m not hesitating to answer; I’m hesitating how to answer that,” Julien said. “You’re never satisfied, and that’s not a knock against the players. You’re always trying to get better, you’re always trying to improve your group. Having said that, I think this group here has done a pretty good job. Since December, I think we’re the team that’s given the third-least amount of goals against, so that’s gotta say something about our group of defencemen, and they’re doing a great job. Right now I’m happy, [but] I’m not satisfied.”
He was anything but satisfied with Reilly’s game a few months ago, when he openly questioned his decision-making and demanded more consistency from him. That was in late November, when he scratched Reilly from five games and said, “He has the potential, but you can’t have a guy in your lineup that you don’t know what you’re going to get on a nightly basis. Are we going to get the good side or the bad side? Because sometimes that can kill your team.”
The good news for Reilly is that he’s shown his better side for the most part since Dec. 1. There was a blip in a game against Chicago that saw him scratched in Minnesota on Dec. 11, and he was removed from the lineup for a game against the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 10, but he’s been pretty steady otherwise — playing close to 19 minutes a game as Jeff Petry’s partner.
On Friday, Julien acknowledged he’s seen considerable improvement from Reilly, but he fell short of giving the left-hander a strong endorsement.
“I think we’ve seen a little bit more consistency in his game and that’s why he’s still in there, where there was a lot of breakdowns and mistakes on his part from maybe just being a little nonchalant [earlier in the season],” said Julien. “That kind of has not disappeared, but it’s gotten way better.”
Whether it’s good enough remains in doubt, and Reilly appears to be acutely aware of that fact.
“I’m not sure what the plans are, it’s a business” he said. “I got traded last year [from Minnesota to Montreal at the deadline]. They could say one thing and then the other thing happens. I think it’s definitely a good time to elevate with two weeks going into the deadline. I definitely have another gear. I think I’m starting to find my game here even more and I’m feeling pretty confident. I just want to keep trying to be a difference maker. I don’t want to sit back and let other people do it.”
It’s the right approach to take if Reilly wishes to cement his place in the lineup — never mind the second pair.
Victor Mete has hit his stride next to Shea Weber and Brett Kulak has been Steady Eddy since coming up to the Canadiens from the AHL’s Laval Rocket back on Nov. 22. Jordie Benn has been solid and Petry is having a career year. That leaves Reilly as the most susceptible defenceman if Bergevin moves to bring someone in.
In 50 games Reilly has three goals, six assists and a 53.6 per cent Corsi For. But with his skating ability, puck-moving skills, and his regular presence on the power play, more is expected, and he knows it.
“You can’t come into a night going through the motions or just trying to get by,” Reilly said. “That’s not going to cut it.”
He’s focused on his play in his own end, on cutting off plays quickly and relying on instinct instead of overthinking his decisions, and he’s keeping himself honest.
“Every single game, I try to watch the video after the game and go through my shifts,” he said. “I think there’s some good habits going that I want to keep going — and that’s something I learned from being in the press box and watching other guys in our lineup do great things. I just have to pick up on those things. I just want to keep pushing.”
The rest is out of his control.