For a team in the middle of a sorely-needed rebuild, the New Jersey Devils seem to be nailing one of the most important parts of rebuilding a team: drafting well. The most obvious being that early returns seem to point them making the right choice in taking Nico Hischier first overall in last year’s Draft. But more importantly, they’ve made some shrewd picks in later rounds that should pay off for them as well. 2016 sixth round draft choice Jesper Bratt made the Devils this year—he’s the only player from 2016 outside of the top 100 picks to play in the NHL at this point—and is doing quite well, scoring 14 points in 23 games this year. They appear to have hit another home run with Minnesota Duluth’s Joey Anderson, who inexplicably fell to the third round in 2016, but has since been a top line player for the US World Junior team, been a key component for the Bulldogs, and after ranking 16th on our list of the top 100 NHL prospects in the NCAA last year, should rank very highly again this year.
The Devils may have snagged another good one in last year’s third round when they selected Chicago Steel/Proctor Academy(NH) defenseman Reilly Walsh with the 81st overall pick. Walsh is now a freshman at Harvard University, and I took a closer at him November 17th when the Crimson traveled to play the University of Minnesota to get a sense of how Walsh is playing and his long-term projection for the future.
One of the first things that stands out about Walsh is that he’s playing a lot. Overall, it’s been an underwhelming start to the season for the Crimson. After being picked as the favorites to win the ECAC by both the coaches and media in preseason polls, they’ve limped out of the gate to a 2-5-1 record.
If there’s a reason for that, it’s that while Harvard has a couple big time prospects at the top of their line-up like Ryan Donato and Adam Fox, their overall depth has been lacking. That may be bad news for Harvard, but has been good for Walsh, because it means Harvard has been relying on him a lot, and in critical situations, which should be excellent for his development.
Walsh is listed at 6-0 185 lbs. on Harvard’s line chart, but I’d be willing to bet that’s an exaggeration. He’s maybe close, but I doubt he’s actually 6-0 tall, and looks like he still has room to put on a lot of muscle, as one would expect from an 18-year-old true freshman.
Style-wise, Walsh is a typical puck-moving, offensive-minded defenseman. Harvard lists him at different spots around the line chart, but he is essentially receiving second-pairing minutes at even strength, and has been a paired with a number of bigger, more defensive-minded D throughout the year. He features on Harvard’s top power play unit. Adam Fox quarterbacks the umbrella-style PP from the top of the point, with the righty shot Walsh setting up at the top of the left circle to use his shot. He’s already emerging as Harvard’s second-best option on the blue line behind Fox.
His skating is decent, relative to what you would expect from an NHL prospect of his size. A few times on Friday, he tried to use his feet to outskate a defender going north-south and didn’t quite have the wheels to create separation, but that’s an issue that should improve with a year or two in the weight room improving leg strength. He had the skating ability and confidence to pinch in and hold the zone on the point a few times, and was good at identifying transition opportunities to get up the ice offensively. What I really liked was his ability to create space for himself by moving laterally. Quick feet and strong edges allow him to change shooting angles from the point and get shots through the first wave of traffic really effectively. He finished the game with six shot attempts, out of 50 total for Harvard. Only one shot made it through on net, and didn’t generate any scoring on that particular night, but I love his aggressiveness in looking for his shot. He doesn’t have a booming shot, but again, that will improve with time. He has five points through his first eight games, and should continue to produce points from the blue line for Harvard.
One of the biggest negatives I saw was in some of his decision-making with the puck. I felt like a couple times he really tried to force the puck up the ice, hoping to connect on a really difficult pass into traffic, with mixed results, rather than finding a second or third option to maintain possession of the puck. As much as I like his ability to find shots for himself, I think his vision in distributing the puck will need to develop in order to be a power play guy at the next level.
Defensively, there’s obviously still room for improvement, as there would be with any 18-year-old freshman playing college hockey, but nothing stood out as a major concern. He was only out for one goal against where his D partner and goalie got victimized by this wicked shot Casey Mittelstadt, so no fault to him there. Otherwise, it was a fairly quiet night for him on that end. He’ll need to get stronger and more mature, and he will at Harvard. With his size, that end might always be more of a struggle for him, but I think what he’ll do offensively outweighs that.
Overall, I saw a prospect in Walsh that is still a few years away, but has all the tools to be a really successful pro player in a few years. Most of the issues are just a matter of being a young kid playing against much older competition and should improve as he grows.
In the near-term, I’d say Walsh is sort of a fringe candidate for this year’s US World Juniors team. I doubt he gets picked this year, just because his role is already covered by guys like Adam Fox and Quinn Hughes that are essentially holy locks to make the team. But, his start to this season has put him on the right track to have a great shot at making the team in 2019.
As I said earlier, Walsh is likely 2-3 years from being ready for the pros. He’s sort of apprenticing under Adam Fox this year, and should evolve into Harvard’s go-to defenseman in a year or two when Fox signs with Calgary. When Walsh signs with New Jersey, he’ll likely need some time in the minors, but shows promising signs as a guy that can be a second pairing defenseman at the NHL level and play on their power play some day.
Drafting Walsh may not provide the instant returns for the Devils like Hischier or Bratt, but there’s definitely potential for him to be another important piece in New Jersey’s rebuild effort.