The New Jersey Devils made their first signing since Tom Fitzgerald was announced as the team’s full-time General Manager. This is not a minor one either. The Devils signed defenseman Reilly Walsh to a three-season entry level contract. Walsh was a 2017 third round draft pick of the Devils and had played for Harvard University for the last three seasons. Walsh is forgoing his senior season and becoming a professional hockey player for the 2020-21 season.
Who is Reilly Walsh?
Reilly Walsh is a 21-year old right shooting defenseman from North Falmouth, Massachusetts as per Elite Prospects. Walsh was a stud for Proctor Academy, represented the United States at the Hlinka tourney in 2016, and made ten appearances with the Chicago Steel of the USHL before being selected 81st overall by the Devils. People here were pleased with his selection. Since then, the hype grew as Walsh developed as a player.
He was a Harvard commit and he stayed with the Crimson. Walsh can be best described as an offensive-minded defender. His production in college was very encouraging. As a freshman, he scored seven goals and thirteen assists in 33 games. His overall play resulted in being named to the ECAC’s All-Rookie Team. As a sophmore, Walsh lit the lamp 12 times and put up 19 assists for 30 points in 33 games. He was named to the ECAC Third All-Star team and was an honorable mention for the All-Ivy League team. As a junior last season, Walsh’s production was eight goals and 19 assists in 30 games prior to the pandemic cutting short everyone’s season in college. He was once again named as an honorable mention to the All-Ivy League team. As the years continued, Walsh’s role on the team grew and he was an important part of Harvard’s blueline.
Walsh did appear in three development camps with the Devils. That showed a commitment to New Jersey to some degree. However, concerns mounted when people, such as Corey Masisak of The Athletic, reported that Walsh was planning to go back to Harvard for his senior season. Any college player can become an unrestricted free agent after completing all four years of college provided they are not signed by August of their senior year. All the player has to do is just not sign a contract until then. Then the team’s draft rights expire and they are up for grabs. This is how former Crimson players like Alexander Kerfoot and Adam Fox ended up going to the NHL with different teams. (This is also how Will Butcher became a Devil.) With Walsh being a productive player, the possibility that he could test the market instead of signing an ELC was real. It is unknown how likely that would have been.
Essentially: The Coronavirus. More specifically, the global pandemic has led to sports leagues of all kinds to re-assess how they can even have players gather for games, much less carry on business as usual. It is one thing for professional leagues. There, owners and the player’s union can negotiate terms on how to carry such a thing out. At the college level, there is no formal professionalism. It is meant to be amateur. Even if it was not, the Ivy League, which includes Harvard, made a clear statement. Last month, the Ivy League announced that all Fall sports were cancelled for 2020. As per the linked article at United Stated College Hockey Online, the earliest hockey could resume would be January 1, 2021. This would mean Walsh and other collegiate players would be inactive for until the new year.
Even then, there is no guarantee that there will be Winter sports for the Ivy Leagues or in the NCAA as a whole. There is no guarantee that, in four months, the pandemic will be controlled to a level in where colleges are comfortable enough to safely allow athletic events to take place. There is no guarantee that the pandemic will subside by 2021. The decision to cancel Fall sports due to COVID-19 could be extended further.
To that end, Walsh had a choice to make. He could either stick with returning to Harvard, wait, and hope there will be some kind of hockey season in the new year. Or he could sign with the Devils and therefore get into their system, be able to train with the team, and prepare with the professional players. Today, he decided on the latter by signing his ELC.
This is a good thing for both sides. Signing Walsh now means that the Devils do not need to essentially recruit Walsh to sign an ELC after his senior year. The team does not risk losing out on a prospect who has developed in a positive manner over the last three seasons. Further, the Devils now have a right-sided defenseman in their organization. With the potential ascendancy of Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl, the Devils do not have many promising blueliners to develop in the short-term. They do not have many right-sided defenders in the pool. Other than Smith, they do not have any offensive-minded defenders in their system. Keeping Walsh and sending him to Binghamton instead of risk losing him to another NHL team after a fourth season at Harvard is a positive.
It is also a positive for Walsh as a player. I will be the first to tell you that developing players is not like a RPG where you play a bunch of games, get experience points, and level up to be a better player. However, playing games is important for any player in their developing cycle. It is where they can put the concepts they have learned in practice, demonstrate the gains they have attempted to make off-ice, and (sometimes rudely) become aware of what is working and what is not. In general, prospects need to play somewhere to develop. It remains unknown whether the AHL will start up by the end of the year. But Walsh can at least attend Devils training camp and other sessions. I think the team could loan him out to a league that would be active, although I do not know enough details if that is truly an option - but it is worth exploring. Walsh signing his ELC makes it more likely he will play in 2020-21 than if he went to Harvard for his senior season. That is favorable for his development.
In terms of prospects to sign, there may not be much for Fitzgerald to do prior to the 2020 NHL Draft. Matthew Hellickson is the only other college-based prospect whose rights also end in 2021 like Walsh. However, I do not think Hellickson is as much of a risk as Walsh to become a free agent. I do not think he has done enough with the Fighting Irish to warrant a lot of NHL teams’ attention. Further, should Norte Dame or the Big Ten Conference cancel or postpone the hockey season, he could make a similar deal then. It depends on how much of a future Fitzgerald and his staff see in him. The rights to Graeme Clarke and Michael Vukojevic also end next year, but as they are junior-based, there is not much of a need to sign them any time soon.
All the same, the news of the Devils signing Reilly Walsh to an ELC is a good thing. Walsh has a better chance of actually playing hockey in 2020-21. The Devils retain a growing young, right-hand shooting defenseman who has an offensive component that few other defenders in the system have. I wish Walsh the best of luck as he begins his professional career. I am glad Fitzgerald was able to make it happen.
Now I want to know what you think. What is your reaction to the Devils signing Reilly Walsh? Are you pleased? Excited? Hyped? Do you think this is the right move for Walsh to make? What do you think Walsh will be able to do in the future? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this signing in the comments. Thank you for reading.