It’s no secret defensemen take a little longer to develop than their forward counterparts. Learning to play reliable defense and earn an NHL coach’s trust is an arduous process; the nature of the position means any rookie mistakes are amplified.
So it should be no surprise that for some of the 2021 UFA class of blueliners, establishing themselves in the world’s best league took a little bit of patience. But for these first-time UFAs, that patience has paid off. Or, at least, it’s about to.
Keep in mind, this isn’t a tiered list, but rather an examination of how some 2021 UFAs’ stories fit the above criteria. But each is at least an interesting option this summer.
Mike Reilly – Boston Bruins
Before the puck dropped this year, Mike Reilly had played 204 games in parts of five seasons for three different franchises, never cementing himself anywhere he went. Reilly turned 27 in July 2020, and nothing to that point in his NHL career suggested anything grand awaited him. But he had by far his best pro season this year, just in time to establish himself as a solid under-the-radar UFA.
And maybe we should’ve seen this coming. While the returns were slow to arrive at the NHL level, Reilly had success everywhere else prior to turning pro.
The Columbus Blue Jackets used the 98th selection in the 2011 draft to pluck Reilly from the fabled Shattuck-St. Mary’s program in Faribault, Minn. After getting drafted, Reilly spent one season ripping up the BCHL, starring for the Penticton Vees alongside older twin brothers Connor and Ryan as well as future NHLers Troy Stecher and Steven Fogarty. Those powerhouse Vees dominated the BCHL, finishing first by 26 points. They’d win the BCHL championship that year by sweeping the Powell River Kings and would go on to win Canada’s Jr. A championship as well. Reilly was vital to that success and led all D-men in goals (24), assists (59) and points (83) in his lone BCHL season.
Following his sojourn to the Okanagan Valley, Reilly returned to the State of Hockey for a productive three-year NCAA career with the University of Minnesota. As a Golden Gopher, Reilly won one Big Ten championship, was named the conference’s defensive player of the year twice and finished top-10 in Hobey Baker voting in 2015. While attending Minnesota, Reilly also won the 2013 world juniors with Team USA, contributing a goal and three points in seven games.
After finishing up with the Gophers, Reilly eschewed signing with Columbus, instead inking a two-year ELC with the Minnesota Wild. To that point, it had been smooth sailing for the 6-foot-1, 199-pounder from Chicago, Ill. But the rearguard struggled to find his footing in the pro game, spending the next two-and-a-half seasons bouncing between Minnesota and AHL Iowa.
At the 2018 deadline, playoff-bound Minnesota sent Reilly to cellar-dwelling Montreal for a fifth-round pick. After another two-and-a-half spot with the Habs, Reilly again found himself on the move – this time to Ottawa, for a fifth-rounder and minor-leaguer Andrew Sturtz.
It was in Ottawa Reilly established himself. He had had some impressive fancy stats with Montreal, and those carried over to his time with the Sens. With a rebuilding Ottawa team, Reilly was able to log over 19 minutes a night and could contribute offensively – just as he had everywhere before turning pro. This season with Ottawa, Reilly had 19 points in 40 games and had an xGF of 51.33 percent at 5-on-5, on a team otherwise deep in the red.
Reilly was traded yet again at this year's deadline. But this time, the tenor was different. Boston paid a third-round pick to rent Reilly for the playoffs. And he thrived in Beantown, putting up eight assists in 15 games while playing 21 minutes a night for a contender.
Reilly was reliable for the B’s in the playoffs too, adding four assists in 11 post-season contests. He, again, averaged more than 21 minutes and was a significant positive possession-wise.
Reilly is no superstar. But his pre-NHL career painted a solid picture. He’s now found his footing at the pro level, and his ability to quickly earn Boston coach Bruce Cassidy's trust during a playoff push was impressive. Reilly, who is coming off a two-year deal with a $1.5 million AAV, may move on from Boston, but he'll have the option of returning. And wherever he signs, he shouldn't have to keep those suitcases packed this time. Of all UFA blueliners, only Tyson Barrie, Dougie Hamilton and Alec Martinez outscored Reilly this year.
Jamie Oleksiak – Dallas Stars
Like Reilly, Jamie Oleksiak was chosen in the 2011 draft. Like Reilly, Oleksiak played some NCAA hockey. Like Reilly, Oleksiak spent his post-draft season in a Canadian junior league (in Oleksiak’s case, the OHL). Like Reilly, Oleksiak had growing pains transitioning to the pro game. The only difference was Oleksiak went 84 picks before Reilly, 14th overall to the Dallas Stars. Oleksiak was the sixth defenseman chosen; Reilly the 33rd.
That draft pedigree made it pretty disappointing for the Stars when Oleksiak initially floundered. In parts of six seasons with Dallas between 2012-13 and 2017-18, Oleksiak managed to earn just 140 games, averaging under 15 minutes a night.
Eventually, Dallas decided they weren’t going to keep waiting around for the hulking rearguard to ‘arrive’ and shipped him to Pittsburgh in December 2017 for a fourth-round pick. Oleksiak spent just over a year in Pittsburgh before being traded back to Dallas for the exact same pick he’d been swapped for initially.
Since then, Oleksiak has come into his own. He partnered the ultra-dependable Miro Heiskanen this season, and the two gelled marvellously. In two-and-a-half seasons since returning to Dallas, Oleksiak has played 146 games. In that time, among 219 D-men with at least 1000 minutes at 5-on-5, Oleksiak’s xGF of 54.93 percent ranks 14th.
Dallas will try to retain the 6-foot-7, 255-pound blueliner. If they can't, he could be a valuable second-pair commodity. Oleksiak’s most recent contract paid him $6.412 million over three seasons.
Adam Larsson – Edmonton Oilers
Adam Larsson was the first defenseman chosen in that 2011 draft. Larsson, picked fourth overall by New Jersey, was a full-time NHLer in his draft-plus-one season but then split time between the AHL and NHL in each of the next two seasons.
Of course, New Jersey traded Larsson to Edmonton in June 2016. The stay-at-home Swede’s cardinal sin since that date has been, well, not being Taylor Hall – or worth a Taylor Hall. But he played well in 2020-21 in time for his first trip to unrestricted free agency.
Larsson doesn’t bring much offense, but he’s a solid defense-minded D-man with snarl. He’s made $4.16 million each of the past six seasons. He may need to take a haircut in a flat-cap environment, but his skill set will be valued somewhere – even if it’s not the City of Champions.
Ryan Murray – New Jersey Devils
The first defenseman chosen in 2012, Murray went one year after the previous trio. Murray has struggled mightily with injuries throughout his eight-season NHL career, managing 82 games only once (2015-16). But he played 48 of 56 games this season for New Jersey, and has rounded into being a solid, if unspectacular, left-shot defender. He’ll turn 28 shortly before next season. He won’t be making the $4.6 million per season that led Columbus to send him away, but Murray will settle in nicely somewhere.