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Mikey Reilly faltered in his top-four role, and that was Brett Kulak’s chance

Replacing a player on the Canadiens’ roster a season earlier, Reilly saw the tables turn in 2018-19.

NHL: Preseason-Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

At the 2018 NHL trade deadline, the Montreal Canadiens essentially swapped Joe Morrow for Mikey Reilly, though the deals were separate trades. In 38 games, Morrow had had difficulties on defence, and the team was looking for an upgrade. Reilly was a good addition to a team shifting focus to the future, producing eight assists in his 19 games, and still being under contract for an additional season.

Still without a bona fide first-pairing defenceman on the left side, the Canadiens nonetheless entered 2018-19 with some competition for the three spots at that position. Trusting the more familiar Jordie Benn with defensive duties beside Jeff Petry to start, Reilly was given his chance right from the outset to make his impressions, forming the middle duo alongside rookie Noah Juulsen, with a few cameos from Karl Alzner in the opening months.

It wasn’t a particularly strong second pair when looking at the shot and possession metrics, most of which were well under 50%. A strong save percentage while they were on the ice kept them from surrendering many goals, and that was enough for a team that was just trying to hold together long enough for Shea Weber to join a team in playoff contention.

The eventual return of the captain allowed Petry to slot back into his regular role one slot down, and it was Reilly who lined up on his opposite side. The pairing was together for over 460 five-on-five minutes this year, and it was quite effective.

Reilly-Petry With or Without You (WoWY) stats

Player(s) TOI CF% SF% SCF% GF%
Player(s) TOI CF% SF% SCF% GF%
Reilly-Petry 464:27 56.8 53.1 54.1 48.7
Petry w/o Reilly 482:49 54.5 53.1 52.8 48.3
Reilly w/o Petry 459:07 52.8 53.3 52.2 58.1
TOI: time on ice (w/o numbers are from games in which both players were in the lineup); CF%: Corsi-for percentage; SF%: shots-for percentage; SCF%: scoring-chances-for pergcentage; GF%: goals-for percentage 5v5 statistics via Natural Stat Trick

Weber’s return correlated with a return to elite form for Carey Price, and that sent Montreal on a run where wins were coming with regularity and the playoff hopes were beginning to look more realistic. A charge up the standings saw quality outings from just about everyone in the lineup.

With most players doing well, mistakes were more obvious. The Canadiens were trying to overachieve on their quest for the post-season, and each loss was tough to take. Weber and Victor Mete were doing great things on the top pairing after a return of health and confidence, respectively. On the third pairing, Brett Kulak and Benn were contributing more than their share. Whatever errors were coming from the defence were usually from the second pairing, and that turned the spotlight on Reilly’s play.

As a puck-carrying defenceman, his game is at its best while he’s in the offensive zone, and throughout the season he was perhaps the most creative blue-liner when on the attack. He could be prone to turnovers in the defensive zone, or guilty of trying to extend an offensive presence when the situation called for a retreat, leaving Petry to defend a high number of odd-man rushes to defend on his own.

Claude Julien’s response was to promote Kulak to the second pairing beside Petry, and that proved to be an inspired choice. Kulak showed himself to be a great partner for Petry, not looking out of place in that role. He displayed a form that the Calgary Flames weren’t convinced he’d ever realize, and the Canadiens had a top-four left-shot defencemen, with no NHL assets used to acquire him.

As for Reilly, the decision wasn’t to slide him down a pair, but rather to see what Christian Folin, who had been on the roster for a few weeks after being acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers, had to offer. That audition lasted for the final 19 games, and Reilly didn’t play again.

Given the magnitiude of the fall from grace, you would expect that Reilly’s numbers showed a player struggling to stick in the NHL. However, that’s not what the stats from the minutes with Petry suggest, and he also ranked quite highly among the Canadiens’ defence corps in most categories.

Defencemen five-on-five stats

Jeff Petry 82 1425.9 55.7 53.7 49.7 53.8 52.3 45.7 0.985 50.5
Jordie Benn 81 1213.3 54.0 53.4 52.2 52.2 55.1 42.9 0.996 47.7
Victor Mete 71 1136.5 51.2 51.1 58.1 53.9 55.5 64.0 1.020 47.2
Shea Weber 58 997.1 53.5 52.1 56.6 54.4 55.4 59.5 1.013 44.8
Brett Kulak 57 965.5 56.1 57.4 57.3 55.1 54.8 56.3 1.000 50.6
Mikey Reilly 57 923.6 54.8 53.2 53.8 53.1 50.1 61.4 1.002 53.0
Noah Juulsen 21 308.1 48.9 48.6 58.1 46.7 43.2 64.7 1.035 47.1
Christian Folin 19 291.4 51.2 51.9 51.9 47.7 51.6 62.5 1.000 48.6
Xavier Ouellet 19 289.3 54.0 54.2 42.1 54.7 56.7 46.2 0.969 63.2
David Schlemko 18 282.7 56.7 55.4 50.0 55.3 50.0 60.0 0.981 47.6
5v5 stats via Natural Stat Trick

The biggest outlier is the high-danger-scoring-chances-for percentage, and that’s where the inopportune turnovers show up in the numbers. Despite that, his 50.1% isn’t substantially lower than Folin’s mark of 51.6%, and Reilly was better in nearly every other stat.

While Kulak’s promotion was the proper decision, and one that appears to have shone a light on an undervalued defenceman, the choice to run with Folin while leaving Reilly to spectate the final quarter of the season isn’t as clear a win. Yet the fact of the matter is Folin didn’t give the coaching staff any reason to take him out of the formation to give Reilly a shot at redemption. Kulak ran with his opportunity while Folin took care of business on his end, and both of those shots were granted by Reilly’s bobbles, as minor as they may have been in a season that the statistics show was, overall, a rather good one.

Reilly’s time with the Canadiens may not be at an end yet. The left side of the defence remains the weakest aspect of the organization, and therefore Montreal is in no position to simply toss away a restricted free agent who can play in the NHL.

The depth situation could offer Reilly another opportunity to take a spot in the lineup, but he would have to earn it at training camp in the fall.