When the New Jersey Devils drafted defenseman Reilly Walsh at the 2017 NHL Draft (81st overall/round 3) they knew they were getting a skilled player with a high hockey IQ in the offensive end of the ice. He showed that with 78 points (27g-51a) in 96 games at Harvard University.
After drafting the son of former NHLer Mike Walsh, former Devils GM Ray Shero said he hoped that the younger Walsh had three great seasons at Harvard – hinting that he’d like to sign the defenseman before he hit his senior year, and before he had the chance to let the Devils rights to him expire making him an unrestricted free agent.
Shero didn’t hold the job long enough to see that happen, but Walsh did play in only three seasons. Part of that may be due to the pandemic which forced the cancellation of Harvard’s 2020-21 season. That put Walsh on the spot to make a choice, and you can bet the Devils franchise is thrilled he chose them.
The 21-year-old defenseman made his professional debut with the Binghamton Devils on Feb. 8. All he did that night was score the game-winning goal in overtime against the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins.
All in all this season he has played in all ten of Binghamton’s games through the stops and starts they have had as the AHL (like all of us) tries to navigate its way through the times we live in.
Adapting to the Pro Game
“It has been interesting,” Walsh said during a recent media availability about his first season as a pro. How could it not be? He’s playing for a team based in Binghamton, that has relocated to Newark, New Jersey for the current season because of the pandemic. He has been in New Jersey since the fall. He’s been to two training camps – New Jersey’s and Binghamton’s – since the calendar turned to 2021.
“Since I’ve been here we have had a couple of positives (for covid), so I’ve somewhat learned to battle through the stops and starts (as far as training goes). Luckily this last break for us was shorter than some of the others, but five days felt like forever,” said the defenseman who turns 22 on April 21. “We handled it. We got to take some workout equipment home. It was nice outside here for a couple of days so that was good. From day one coach (Mark) Dennehy has instilled in us that we have no control and whatever happens we just have to react to it.”
“We’re excited to hopefully play tomorrow.”
The last time Binghamton was scheduled to play a game was March 10. They played one period against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms before the game was suspended; it will be completed on Apr. 26.
So when he said hopefully it really highlighted the era we live in now and what coach Dennehy said about reacting to things as they come. When games and practices are canceled or postponed, you have to adapt, which has been made a tad easier being that we live in a world filled with technological advances changing daily.
“It’s a huge thing and lucky that we’re in a time with technology so powerful and creative. It’s nice that we’re able to still focus on hockey for at least a part of the day,” Walsh replied when asked if technology deserves a primary assist this season.
“I have had a couple of video sessions with my (assistant) coach (Ryan) Parent and it definitely helped me keep focused on things so that whenever we jump on a team/group zoom I’m up to speed. When we get back on the ice we’re going right into resuming the season, no training camp is needed. The goal down here is to keep getting better, keep improving every day, and be the best that we can.”
Walsh’s Work is Never Done
So what does Walsh think he needs to work on to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL (and stay there)? Well, we asked him, and here’s what he said.
“I definitely think just my overall awareness on the defensive side of the puck. The one thing I talk about with Coach Parent is that the confidence I have and the ability to see the ice on the offensive side of things – if I can use those skills on the defensive side and be able to read and react at a faster pace – it will help me a lot,” said the former Harvard blueliner.
“Obviously I’m not the biggest guy, but I move well and if I anticipate in the d-zone and play aggressive I can disrupt plays with my stick and make reads once we get the puck back. The biggest thing for me right now is analyzing the (incoming) rush, finding my guys early to anticipate them for quick box-outs, and take away time and space. I would say that I just need to be more confident and quicker on my reads in the d-zone; that allows our team to have tighter gaps and get the puck back faster.”
So what did the Devils’ management ask him to work on as he tries to navigate his way through the most unique first pro season ever? They asked him to fine-tune the defensive side of his game. Everyone knows he has the offensive skill set to play at the next level, but he also can’t be a one-dimensional player.
Walsh said he was told, “‘At times, you may have gotten away with it at certain levels, but that you can’t get away with that starting now in pro hockey. And you really couldn’t even in college.’”
“I take a lot of pride in the d-zone, and this year I’ve really been trying to be a good, trustworthy defender; someone who takes care of his own end first and from there I let the way I see the ice come and go”
“I have fun when we have the puck, but it’s something I need to focus on – it’s my biggest focus. From there the coaches have been really good with letting me play and have fun when we have the puck.”
Big Shoes to Fill
In a ‘normal’ season Walsh would be working on his craft in Binghamton. But in Newark, he’s able to be around the NHL players (not too close though, because it’s still covidy out there!). Currently, he plays and practices in a building with the retired numbers of two Hockey Hall of Fame defensemen (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer) and three franchise legendary defensemen (we got love for you too, Ken Daneyko) hanging from the ceiling.
So how often does he catch himself thinking about what his future holds? Is it inspiration or scary to live up to that legacy?
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dream about stuff like that,” he replied with a grin. “Especially with those jerseys hanging up here, and guys they currently have (in New Jersey). With all of the NHL clubs basically right next to us in the locker room (area), seeing those other teams come in. Today a couple of us were watching (Sidney) Crosby skate in Pittsburgh’s morning skate and it’s hard not to kind of just be in awe of a guy like that.”
Binghamton plays and practices in the RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House, which is connected to the Prudential Center and the locker rooms are adjacent to one another. So for a hockey junkie like Walsh, it’s been virtually a who’s who in hockey (in the East Division) using the same rinks on an almost daily basis.
“Overall, it’s been just an eye-opening experience,” added Walsh. “To be right there in training camp with a guy like Norris Trophy winner PK Subban. Stuff like that, where guys have been successful at high levels, to just be on the ice with them was crazy. But at the same time, it’s motivation too. It’s something that I work towards every day and I expect to be in a spot like that, hopefully in the near future.”
“At the same time there’s plenty of stuff I need to do to get better right now and that’s why we play. It’s the journey and the progress.”
New Jersey netminder Mackenzie Blackwood said earlier this season that when he’s away from the rink he rarely watches other NHL games. He prefers to spend his time away from hockey to relax, reboot, and refresh his mind for the next game – which is almost always a day or two away.
There’s a bit more downtime in the AHL and as someone who aspires to be in the NHL one day, Walsh watches games when he can, and also keeps tabs on a few former collegiate teammates as well.
“I look at the sheet for the 7:00 games to see who’s playing. I’ve tried to and watched almost every game for New Jersey and if there’s another game when Jersey is off that I like the matchups on,” Walsh revealed. “Personally I try to watch Pittsburgh and the Rangers because two of my old teammates at Harvard – (John) Marino and (Adam) Fox play for them. I try to watch them as much as I can, and being a right-shot D-man I try to watch and analyze those guys. Obviously, I like to watch teams like Toronto and Edmonton play with the lineups they have on the offensive side.”
“I try to watch a lot of hockey in general,” added Walsh. “I’m really not busy ever, so I don’t have an excuse to do something else. I do like watching the teams that play fast, quick, have puck-moving defensemen. You see how they play and what works, what doesn’t.”
The Devils front office is obviously hoping that Walsh works out for them. “It’s kind of different this season because usually only one or two of us would be the young D on a team in most leagues or instances,” said Walsh. “But this team is relying on young D to make plays and be in the lineup, which is awesome. Even though we’re just ten games in I feel like we’re growing as a group and feel more confident.”
With Walsh, Kevin Bahl, Michael Vukojevic, and Nikita Okhotiuk all playing for Binghamton this season, and Ty Smith in his rookie season with New Jersey – there is hope that a large part of the future of the Devils’ blueline is in the building.
Now they just have to unlock their potential and guide them along the path.