A few months after watching the Florida Panthers upset his Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Mike Reilly put pen to paper and joined the eighth-seeded underdogs in free agency.
Reilly had split the Bruins’ historic 2022-23 campaign between their AHL affiliate in Providence and the big squad, playing in 10 NHL games and registering an assist before finishing the season in the minors.
After playing in one AHL playoff game, Reilly could only watch as Florida upset Boston, who set the NHL record for wins (65) and points (135) in a season, in seven games after the Bruins squandered a 3-1 series lead.
“Even the Boston guys were saying that Florida was not an eight seed,” Reilly said of the Panthers.
“They got hot down the stretch there and sometimes when you get hot like that, that’s momentum coming in. And that’s exactly what they did.”
In that series, and the six years he spent in the same division as the Panthers throughout his nine-year career, Reilly saw a team he could gel with easily.
The 6-foot-1, 196-pound defenseman is a swift puck-mover who likes to jump out on the rush while picking up assists with his passing ability.
Florida has had success utilizing players of that similar style — including Gus Forsling and Brandon Montour — and Reilly hopes to be the next success story.
“I think it’s a team that plays fast, plays hard and kind of up and down the ice and you can tell a couple of their defensemen are really active,” he said.
“They also have the skill guys up front that seem like they love the lead man coming in and joining the rush to create odd-man rushes. I feel like my game can fit in with these types of forwards and I can be the odd-man guy and break the puck out to these guys.”
Panthers general manager Bill Zito, who was part of the Columbus Blue Jackets front office when they drafted Reilly in 2011, knew he fit his team’s style of play and knew he would gel well in Sunrise.
“He can move the puck, he can skate and he is a dynamic two-way guy,” Zito said.
For Reilly, finding a good fit was important. Especially after the roller coaster ride he went on last season.
The 29-year-old was on Boston’s opening-night roster, playing in the first 10 games while defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk recovered from injuries sustained in the previous season.
But once McAvoy returned to the lineup on Nov. 10, Reilly’s time in the NHL was over.
Reilly spent the rest of the season in the AHL, registering 26 points in 36 games, before getting bought out by Boston the day before free agency started.
Even with a fresh start, Reilly finds himself entering a similar situation in South Florida.
With Montour and Aaron Ekblad likely to miss the beginning of the season with injuries, Reilly was brought in to prove himself and hold things down while they are gone.
Only he will have some competition while doing so.
The Panthers brought in fellow left-handed defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola and Dmitry Kulikov while retaining free-agent defenseman Lucas Carlsson in the process.
Those five players will be competing for four spots during training camp before that number gets trimmed down to two when Ekblad and Montour return.
”There is going to be attrition, but competition is good,” Zito said.
”We think we are going to have opportunities for everybody that are real, which is the most important part so that people feel fulfilled. We are going to do are best to supplement the holes and, at the same time, provide an opportunity for people to show up and continue to grow.”
Zito has continued to stress that the best players are going to play when everyone is healthy and Reilly learned what it takes to be in that situation while on a team as deep as Boston was.
“Last year was not a good year by any means, but I think the biggest thing for me was how mentally strong I could stay,” Reilly said.
“It’s tough for me but I think I can get back to where I was before all of that and that’s why I’m excited to sign in Florida.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
- Now: Free agency open
- July 9-15 (approximately): Development camp, Coral Springs
- Mid-September: Training Camp, South Florida
- Sept. 25: Preseason starts, doubleheader v. Nashville @ Sunrise
- Oct. 7: Preseason ends, vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
- Mid-October: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season