Thursday June 18th, 2015

The Chicago Blackhawks already notched one pretty big win this week. Now, with free agency approaching, they’re on the verge of another.

The Hawks are regarded as the favorites to land the services of former University of Minnesota defenseman Mike Reilly who confirmed on Wednesday that he will take advantage of a clause in the CBA to explore his options as a free agent on July 1.

He would have been crazy not to. That’s not a knock on the Blue Jackets, an organization that has made significant strides since drafting Reilly in the fourth round back in 2011. But Reilly is viewed much differently today than he was when he was initially selected. And he has considerably more leverage.

Drafted at 5' 9", 165 pounds, he’s now listed at 6' 1", 183. His game has grown as well. The two-time All-American has the qualities that teams crave from a modern defenseman. He’s a remarkable skater and a fearlessly creative playmaker who can jumpstart the offense in transition. He has high-end vision, an excellent shot and a high panic threshhold. He was a consistent point producer for the Gophers and he made a strong impression while playing a more controlled game for the bronze medal-winning American side at the recent World Championships. He’s also seen as being weak defensively, has no physical game and plays a high-risk style that can sometimes burn his team.

That said, he’s regarded as a possible Nick Leddy-type, a player who will require some patience but could make an impact. No wonder then that the Wild, Kings and Rangers are in hot pursuit.

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As for Reilly’s ultimate destination, the Hawks are thought to make the most sense for a number of reasons, including the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. But what it really comes down to is something that the Jackets couldn’t guarantee: opportunity. A looming salary cap crunch is expected to force some turnover on Chicago’s back end, and that means the Hawks will be looking for affordable talent. And while their system is loaded with defensive prospects, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Stephen Johns and Ville Pokka all are right-handed shots. No one is standing in the way of the left-shooting Reilly, who could be in the lineup on opening night when the Hawks reveal their third Cup banner in six seasons. Hard to say no to that.

Whatever path he chooses, Reilly won’t be the last to explore it. Just like he watched Justin Schultz (drafted by the Ducks, signed with the Oilers) and Kevin Hayes (Blackhawks to Rangers) use the same loophole in 2012 and 2014 respectively, you can bet others will be watching Reilly for inspiration that could impact their own course next spring.

Consider a player like Jaccob Slavin. The 6' 3", 195 left-shooting defenseman spent a season with the USHL’s Chicago Steel after being drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 draft by Carolina. The Hurricanes pressed hard to get him to sign after he completed his sophomore season with Colorado College, but Slavin decided to return for his junior year after being unable to come to terms. Ostensibly, the difference was over bonus money but Slavin, who has 10 goals and 42 points in 66 college games, might also be keeping the door open to explore free agency next summer.

The same could be true for Adam Gilmour, who went on to play a year of junior hockey with the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks after being taken in the fourth round that same year by the Minnesota Wild. The 6' 3", 200-pound right winger isn’t viewed as an elite prospect, but after scoring nine goals and 27 points in 38 games as a sophomore at Boston College, his stock is on the rise and he could be a very attractive option at this time next year.

While all this is going on, the Blue Jackets are left to pick up the pieces. GM Jarmo Kekalainen told The Columbus Dispatch that Reilly’s snub will force him to re-stock his pipeline with a high-end defensive prospect and add some depth to the team’s current crop of blueliners. With the draft coming up, expect Columbus to make a splash. The Jackets could use a win of their own right about now.

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