Welcome to our 2021 countdown of the top young players in the Pittsburgh organization that are under the age of 25. Catch up with these links:
#23 Will Reilly, RD
2020 Ranking: #23
Age: 22 (April 1, 1999)
Acquired Via: 7th round pick, 2017 draft
Height/Weight: 6’2, 196 pounds
In the lead up to this point of his career, Will Reilly was probably most notable for his draft position. What’s so special about being picked 217th back in 2017? There was no pick 218, granting the “Mr. Irrelevant” tag that Reilly will carry for the rest of his playing days (but hey, it worked out pretty OK for 2005 Mr. Irrelevant, Patric Hornqvist).
Turning pro this season after a very successful NCAA career at RPI, Reilly actually came closer than you might remember to playing in the NHL last season.
Flash back to February 1st. The AHL season hasn’t started. The NHL Penguins are only a few weeks into the season, but their defense is in shambles. Kris Letang just got hurt, just after Brian Dumoulin was injured. Marcus Pettersson has already been out for a while, as has Mike Matheson. Even Juuso Riikola is hurt.
The Pens defensive playing lineup on 2/1? P.O Joseph + John Marino, Chad Ruhwedel + Cody Ceci, and Kevin Czuczman + a newly signed Yannick Weber.
The scratches for this game? Letang (injured), and....Will Reilly. (Dumoulin, Matheson, Riikola and Pettersson all on the IR and not even needing to be scratched).
Pittsburgh lost that game 3-1, but got a fortunate development soon after with the news their next upcoming opponent, the Devils, had too many positive COVID tests and the games were postponed. The Pens needed that break at that moment, but for a non-virus related reason. By the next Pens game that was played (2/6), Letang and Matheson were able to return, and Reilly was sent back to the AHL for the start of Wilkes-Barre’s season.
Had the Pens not opted to sign Weber earlier in the week (who only appeared in two total games), or had one more injury, one of the most unexpected things would have happened: Will Reilly would have been pressed into duty to make his professional debut in the NHL. Not just his NHL debut, but his very first pro game.
That story speaks more to the absolute gongshow of injuries to see five of the eight top defensemen on the team get hurt — in just the first nine games of the season! That has to be some sort of macabre record. But it also illustrates that just about any and every player in the organization might have to be called upon just around the bend from the next unexpected development. Reilly was also a call-up to the Pens’ taxi squad briefly from April 3-5 as Pittsburgh dealt with more injuries.
As we’ve already seen, nothing has been normal in the COVID season of 2020-21, but the idea that Reilly was one pulled groin or puck hitting someone in the face away in pregame warmup from making his NHL debut in February before he even played in the AHL is just....Tough to put into words. Couldn’t imagine making that up if ya tried.
Despite going through the tempest of an uneven and uncertain season, Reilly did take some strides in the AHL in his first pro season. But maybe he would have been ready or been able to harness some adrenaline, Reilly scored a goal on Wilkes-Barre’s opening night on 2/8, just a week after his close brush with the NHL.
Reilly appeared in 26 of WB/S’s 32 games, scoring total three goals (no defender on the team had more goals) and adding total six points. Offense isn’t a staple in Reilly’s game, but he has some decent skating and ability to step into the play, as you can see in the highlight above.
The good thing about Reilly is that he has a lot of good elements to his game. His size (6’2 and about 200 pounds) is ideal. He’s a right handed shot, which is always valuable. He can move around the ice pretty well and isn’t a total anchor in the offensive zone, getting some work with the second PP unit for Wilkes.
Reilly was mostly used on the third pair for WB/S, but being a consistent member of the AHL lineup is always a plus for a professional rookie. The good news for Reilly is that the organizational depth has opened up a bit too. The Pens brought in veteran Taylor Fedun, but the organization has bid farewell to Czuzcman, Zach Trotman, Jon Lizotte and Jesper Lindgren. This natural churn of minor league players should present more of an opportunity for Reilly.
For RHD Pittsburgh has Fedun, Reilly and Josh Maniscalco (who only appeared in eight AHL games) on NHL contracts for WB/S next season and not much else. The team is likely to bring in depth in the form of AHL contracts, but at this point Reilly should be slotted well above that level and have the opportunity to grow into a key player in Wilkes-Barre for the second and final season of his entry level contract.
From there, as we saw in 2020-21, pretty much anything can happen. Will Will Reilly make an AHL niche? Show a growth for now his second (and hopefully a more normal) season? Reilly probably sits sixth on the team depth chart for RHD (behind Letang, Marino, Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Friedman and Fedun) but the Pittsburgh defensive depth chart is a strange and evolving beast.
Mr. Irrelevant will be looking to earn his stripes and make more steps next season.