The offseason is not just for the National Hockey League players to be involved. Many American Hockey League players will see their fates changed this Summer as vets move on to other teams for one reason or another. Maybe they do not get an opportunity with an organization like they would think. This is the main thing that came to my mind when the New Jersey Devils announced they traded Utica Comets defenseman Reilly Walsh for Providence Bruins center Shane Bowers this afternoon.
Some may bristle at this deal as Reilly Walsh was a productive defenseman for the Utica Comets and possibly someone to watch for in the future. After all, he did post up back-to-back 40+ point seasons with the Comets. He got hot in the 2023 playoffs with four goals and five points in six games. A defenseman putting up a grand total of 99 points in 174 AHL games is a really good rate of production. Walsh was absolutely an offensive defenseman of importance for the Comets.
The problem is that it was only for the Comets. Since the Devils signed him out of Harvard in 2020, Walsh has made just one appearance in the NHL. The following depth/minor leaguers have received more games played than Walsh over the past three seasons: Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, Matt Tennyson, Colton White, Connor Carrick, Christian Jaros, Luke Hughes, and technically Mason Geertsen, who lined up at forward mostly during his 25 games of pain-to-watch. The point is that Walsh was passed over by several defensemen to get a chance to play in the NHL. Since this took place from 2021 through 2022-23, this meant Walsh did not even get a chance to perform for when the Devils were terrible in 2021 and 2021-22.
That does not bode well for someone looking to breakthrough now that the team is really good. Especially when Luke Hughes and Walsh’s teammate Simon Nemec are primed for NHL positions next season. Add in that Brendan Smith is still signed and the team has seven defensemen penciled in for next season. It was a telling sign when Nemec and Topias Vilén were called up as black aces for the remainder of the Devils playoff run but not Walsh after he put up four goals in six games. Clearly, New Jersey management did not think Walsh had enough to warrant a chance in New Jersey. With Utica adding Vilén and Daniil Misyul for next season, the Comets blueline was getting crowded too. Walsh is 24 and it would be a stretch to state he is still developing as a player.
Something had to give. A few days ago, the prospect of the Devils trading Walsh was the headline of this Ryan Novozinsky post at NJ.com. He was speaking to assistant GM Dan MacKinnon and he was quite candid about the situation. Walsh was losing his waiver exemption in 2023-24, he was a pending restricted free agent, and he is 24 years old. It was unlikely he was going to stick around here. That turned out to be true on this day.
The return is another minor leaguer who is a pending restricted free agent: Shane Bowers. Bowers is a center, which is likely the reason why he was acquired. Utica needs centers. Bowers is at least a depth center (and right wing as per the AHL’s site), who has played in that kind of role for Colorado’s AHL team and the Providence Bruins last season. He has not been productive with seasons cut short for one reason or another and a career high of 21 points in a season (2022-23). Bowers will turn 24 in July and given that he just passed his fourth season of pro hockey, he is eligible for waivers. It is more likely Bowers will clear on his own than Walsh, so I suspect the Devils will sign him for a season or two and see how it goes for Utica. If he is in New Jersey, then something significant and surprising has happened. Yes, he has played in the NHL in one game last season and yes he is a former first round pick. But he is less of a reclamation project than he is a guy to fill out the forward roster.
I would think MacKinnon and the Comets will still look for ways to upgrade their offense. I do wish Walsh garnered a more offensive minor leaguer than Bowers as I think the Comets will miss Walsh’s attacking skillset. At the same time, this was a pending RFA being traded for another one. If trading the signing rights to a pending NHL free agent does not garner much, then why would a minor leaguer get a notable return. At the end of the day, the only way Walsh is going to get a shot at the NHL is to be with a different organization. I wish him the best of luck with the Bruins. Even if it is going to be with the Providence Bruins, as suggested at Stanley Cup of Chowder.