Battered by injuries really from the start of the season, the Boston Bruins have reached so deep into their bag of defensemen in 2021 they’ve started to pull out lint and Halloween ‘candy’ from four years ago. (I’m not sure why we kept the bags of popcorn balls and boxes of Dots in there like they’d magically turn into something else after the fifth reach-in.)
And with the Bruins going through yet another injury rash on the backend, and to their top three defensemen at that with Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, and Charlie McAvoy all out of action, the Bruins had to make a call for external help.
…Oh, hello, Mike Reilly.
Acquired from the Senators in exchange for a third-round pick late Sunday, the Reilly pickup understandably isn’t going to come with the fanfare of the Taylor Hall addition. But it’s a move that the Bruins’ Don Sweeney hopes will have a stabilizing impact on a Boston blue line that could certainly use more of it down the stretch.
“A player we’ve seen grow from his time in Minnesota and Montreal and then moving on to Ottawa with a much-elevated role,” Sweeney said of Reilly. “Puck-moving, transition game, skating ability. Even saw the difference when Matt Grzelyck went out of the lineup. We want to be a team with transitions a little cleaner at times. [Reilly]’s produced offensively. Not necessarily scoring, but contributing point-production wise. Has played in all the situations and has been in elevated roles in with Ottawa and you’ve seen growth in his game in both a competitive standpoint, but also overall.
“He’s got experience, he has confidence, he’s done it at every level.”
2021 has been a breakout season for the 27-year-old Reilly in that respect, too, with 19 assists (15 of which came at even strength, which would tie him with Brad Marchand for the B’s team lead) in 40 games with the Senators.
Break it down to per-60 rates and Reilly’s actually tied with the Avalanche’s Sam Girard for the league lead in assists per 60 minutes (1.27) among d-men, and is tied for 13th in points per 60 minutes of five-on-five play (minimum 600 minutes).
Reilly also posted a minus-2 rating for a Senators team with a minus-45 goal differential in 2021, which trails the Sabres by just one for the worst in hockey. Only the Sens’ Artem Zub had a stronger five-on-five differential than Reilly among Ottawa regulars, and Reilly was above the 50-percent mark in both scoring chance and high-danger chance percentages. All while the Senators ‘boasted’ a godawful .895 save percentage with Reilly on the ice this season.
In essence, he’s done his job like never before.
“D.J. Smith was so critical for me as a player this year,” Reilly said of his 2021 success. “He’s a guy who will get on his players and expects a lot of the guys. And that’s what you want as a player. He would communicate with you after games, during games, and be vocal. You know where you stand with him. That’s a big thing for your confidence.”
(Reilly is certainly walking into something similar here with Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy.)
But in addition to his experience with a coach who isn’t afraid to do whatever’s needed to get his players where they need to be, those numbers from Reilly are the kind that project Reilly to be a potential third-pairing dynamo for the Black and Gold. And that’s something that has emerged as a definite need with Jakub Zboril’s game appearing to hit its low point, with three of his six lowest ice-time totals coming in the last week alone (and with the Bruins ravaged by injuries).
“Getting back to pucks, retrieval-wise and recognizing that first pass within the structure of what our team is trying to accomplish, I think Reilly will help in that area,” Sweeney offered. “Getting up the ice, supporting the rush, being clean on the first pass coming out or through the neutral zone. He does have some ability in the offensive blue line which he has shown to be able to get pucks through or to make some plays – going down the wall, getting pucks to the middle.”
If you’re looking for a buzzword in there, it comes back to Sweeney saying “clean on the first pass.” That’s been stressed by Cassidy approximately six billion times this season, and it’s at times been a noticeable issue for the Bruins’ young defensemen, whether it’s been Zboril, or even Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton for that matter. There’s simply been too many instances of the Bruins making their shifts needlessly difficult with careless puck play in their own end.
And there’s an expectation that Reilly can bring the style that helps the Bruins get back to their roots as a 200-foot team.
“You can see the reason [the Bruins] have success is because they play the game the right way,” Reilly said of his potential fit with the B’s. “In the D-zone, they play hard and it seems like they get on pucks pretty quick and kill plays. And the more you do that, the more you get to play offense. There’s definitely a good opportunity here.
“I’m excited to get to work and just help break the team out and whatever Bruce is gonna ask me to do, I’m ready to do.”
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.