There hasn’t been a ton of New Jersey Devils news since the hirings of Lindy Ruff and Tom Fitzgerald in early July. But that changed yesterday when the organization announced they had signed top prospect Reilly Walsh — a 2017 third-round pick — to a three-year, entry-level deal.
Walsh just completed his junior season at Harvard University (NCAA), finishing with 27 points in 30 games. The 21-year-old defenseman is among the Devils’ top five prospects and is arguably their best defensive prospect behind Ty Smith. He’ll now be turning pro rather than returning to Harvard for his senior season, which should give the Binghamton Devils (AHL) a significant boost on defense. And if all goes well, he has the potential to break into the NHL sooner than later.
Walsh’s Strengths and Weaknesses
What stands about Walsh is his offensive instincts. His biggest strength is his shot. It’s heavy, and he has a powerful one-timer when given a chance to tee up the puck. It’s also why Harvard placed him in the Ovechkin spot on the power play, where a few of his eight goals came from this past season.
Walsh is also a more than capable passer. He’s not the flashiest playmaker, but he can be at times. He makes a solid first pass on defensive zone breakouts if he’s not rushing the puck up the ice. He can also stretch the ice with long stretch passes, and he connects on them more often than not.
Walsh isn’t the best skater in the world. That said, it’s certainly not a weakness. He moves around the ice well and can create space when it doesn’t seem like there’s much available. That’s partly because of his stickhandling, which is also one of his strengths. And while he may not be the fastest guy out there, he is smooth and shifty (From ‘Wheeler’s 2020 NHL prospect pool rankings: No. 17 New Jersey Devils,’ The Athletic – 1/27/20).
If there’s an area of his game Walsh needs to work on, it’s his strength. From the short clips I managed to find of him, he tends to get knocked off the puck from time to time when trying to lay down a hit. That should improve now that he’s turning pro and will be under the supervision of the Devils’ strength and conditioning regiment.
Another part of Walsh’s game he needs to improve is his defensive play. His positioning is usually pretty good, nor is he a bad defender, but this ties into him needing to add more strength. Part of being a successful NHL defender is winning one-on-one battles, but that shouldn’t be an issue if he gets stronger.
Expectations for Walsh
Smith is the Devils’ best prospect and is in a tier of his own. Next would be Nolan Foote, who the Devils acquired when they traded Blake Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline. After that, there’s some debate as to who would be third. Jesper Boqvist played in 34 NHL games in 2019-20, but he’s not a regular yet, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to put him in that spot.
Related: Top 10 Devils Prospects
If Boqvist doesn’t make your list of best prospects, then Walsh has a reasonable case to be third. He has the most offensive upside of any of the Devils’ other defensive prospects not named Ty Smith, and there isn’t one who comes close to rivaling him. He also has the best shot at becoming an NHLer from the team’s remaining defensive prospects, along with Kevin Bahl.
What kind of defenseman could he be if/when he makes the NHL? Walsh will never be the type of blueliner you throw over the boards to close out a game in its final minutes. Rather, he’s likely to be an offensive defenseman who should be a significant contributor on the power play. At even-strength, it’d be fair to expect him to play second-pair minutes if he reaches his ceiling.
But he still has a while to go before getting to that point. The original plan was to have him return to Harvard for his senior season. However, the Ivy League announced fall sports were canceled for 2020 due to COVID-19, meaning Walsh wasn’t going to get the minutes he needs to grow as a hockey player.
The fact Walsh was returning to Harvard suggests he also needs more time to develop, something he’ll get in the AHL. And with Binghamton adding Bahl, Walsh, Nikita Okhotyuk, and possibly Smith, they should have a strong unit this upcoming season. It also means they can ease Walsh into pro hockey without playing him over his head because they’ll have the depth to do so. That will serve his development well, and it should help him take the next step in his career, one that should end up with him being a meaningful, NHL contributor for the Devils.