Utica Comets defenseman Walsh earns NHL opportunity

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UTICA — Reilly Walsh has had a standout season with the Utica Comets.

The defenseman, who is a strong skater with quality offensive instincts, is getting an opportunity at the NHL level with the parent New Jersey Devils as a reward for his play with the Comets this season. 

He’s been among the leaders in points among American Hockey League defensemen throughout this season as he’s helped Utica chase a Calder Cup trophy. 

Walsh’s opportunity arrived Tuesday when the Devils officially announced they had called up the defenseman, who they selected in the third round of the 2017 NHL Draft. He was in the lineup Tuesday night when New Jersey played at Ottawa and earned his first NHL point assisting on Nolan Foote's goal. Walsh is the sixth Comets player to make his NHL debut this season with New Jersey.

“Very excited to be here and happy to join the (Devils),” Walsh told media Tuesday morning. 

New Jersey also has a road game Thursday before closing the season Friday at home. So, it is an opportunity for Walsh to make an impression at the NHL level as he pushes for a full-time NHL gig. 

It is also part of a big stretch of days for the Massachusetts native, who turned 23 on Thursday. He scored the game-winning goal in overtime for the Comets against Rochester the next day. 

Walsh has turned in an impressive first full season in the AHL after 33 games with the Devils’ affiliate during the shortened 2021 campaign. 

In 69 games with the Comets, he’s been a fixture leading the team’s power play. 43 points (nine goals, 34 points) are tied for fourth among AHL defensemen entering Tuesday. His points are second-most for a defenseman, only trailing Brogan Rafferty (45 points in 57 games during a shortened 2019-20 season). 

“I felt to start I thought I did really well,” Walsh said in a recent interview with the Daily Sentinel.

“Points are something that are kind of interesting where they do emulate success with making plays. But, there are games I’ve felt I’ve played well and had no points and games that I’ve played not so well and had points. So, there was a stretch for awhile where I wasn’t on the scoresheet, but I thought I was doing OK around the net. The priority right now is defense and being plus (in plus-minus rating) and good on the rush. It is all that stuff that I’ve been working on with our coaches a lot.”

There have been some growing pains this season for Walsh, which is to be expected for young players in the AHL.

Comets coach Kevin Dineen said Walsh’s game is rounding out on both the offensive and defensive ends. 

“He’s a dynamic kid and he’s had a solid year on the offensive side,” Dineen said. “He’s a very solid prospect for us.”

Walsh is the most recent player to join the Devils. Defensemen Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotiuk have also stepped in for the Devils and made impressions. Okhotiuk scored his first NHL goal in his debut Thursday. 

“That’s a great accomplishment to get the first one,” Dineen said of Okhotiuk. “We love seeing guys go up and have that individual success.” 

Forwards Fabian Zetterlund and Foote are also on recall with New Jersey. Each of the five players are eligible to re-join the team, though it is unclear if they will be back with the team before New Jersey’s season is over.

The Comets (42-19-8-1, 0.664 points percentage) have already claimed the North Division title and clinched the best record in the Eastern Conference with two regular-season games to play. It means the Comets would have home-ice advantage through the conference finals should they advance.

Utica is looking to gain momentum heading into the postseason – the Comets opponent is not yet known – with two regular-season games remaining.

Utica is scheduled to play at 7 p.m. Friday at Rochester before closing the regular-season at 7 p.m. Saturday at Providence in Rhode Island.

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