Walsh, Comets building something special

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams

Even Reilly Walsh might have an off night here and there.

The 22-year-old Utica Comets standout defenseman is 79 games into an American Hockey League career, chasing a Calder Cup, and making a bid for a future full-time job with the New Jersey Devils. Walsh’s 34 points (six goals, 28 points) tie him with Joseph Duszak of the Toronto Marlies for third in scoring among AHL blueliners. So the odd hiccup here and there can be managed and even expected.

New Jersey selected Walsh in the third round of the 2017 NHL Draft. That same productive round also yielded Comets forward Fabian Zetterlund, whose 38 points (18 goals, 20 assists) in 43 contests tie him with Chase De Leo for the team lead. Walsh made the jump to NCAA competition at Harvard as an 18-year-old and spent three seasons there. He turned pro last season with the Binghamton Devils, compiling 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 33 games as a rookie.

New Jersey management has plenty to like about Walsh’s path so far, and going through an intense Calder Cup run this spring could further fuel that progress.

But following a rare off-night for the Comets in a 4-0 home loss to the Hershey Bears this past Friday, head coach Kevin Dineen had some difficult decisions to make. On Saturday, on the road against the rival Syracuse Crunch, Dineen made his second-year defenseman a healthy scratch in what would eventually be a 6-3 defeat.

It marked only the third time this season that the Comets have had back-to-back regulation setbacks.

For a team that set an AHL record with 13 consecutive wins to open the season, it might have seemed that the good times would never stop. But this is the AHL, the final stop for prospects before the National Hockey League, and it puts players through the grind of a six-month regular season with its corresponding ups and downs. For all of his early pro success, the three-assist season debut, the six-game point streak back in November, Walsh is not exempt from those growing pains.

So Dineen held Walsh out of his line-up for the first time this season.

“He’s a very sincere kid who plays the game with a lot of passion and drives a lot of our offense,” Dineen said. “You know that there was a hole in our lineup with him not in it, but you also remember your number-one priority is that development side. Sometimes you can have chats, you can spend time on video, but [a healthy scratch is] pretty direct message.”

Coming from two seasons with the prospect-packed San Diego Gulls, Dineen knows how to handle high-end prospects. Jamie Drysdale, Trevor Zegras, Maxime Comtois, Jacob Perreault, and Troy Terry are among the elite talents who competed for Dineen in San Diego.

“To me, I think they understand that it’s not personal,” Dineen said of sitting down a young prospect like Walsh. “There’s the development side, but also your play matters. Your play is going to judge [your usage]. So it happens, he’s got a little sting when it happens, and all of a sudden you’re two weeks down the road, and you like to think you’ve got maybe a better [player].”

Photo: Jeff Pexton

Dineen absolutely had Walsh back in his lineup Sunday evening against that same Hershey club, this time at the end of a three-in-three weekend, on the road at Giant Center, and reunited in a pairing with steady Tyler Wotherspoon. Stuck in a 0-0 game through 40 minutes, the Comets muscled past the stubborn Bears with strikes from Joe Gambardella and captain Ryan Schmelzer to set up a 3-1 victory that put that two-game skid to a stop.

“I think it was a big win for us on the road on the three-in-three,” Walsh said. “We’ve struggled as of late for our standards, and I think been a little bit too inconsistent. But I think we really found our game. [Hershey has been] a tough place to play, especially from last year not really having any success against these guys.”

Sunday night’s win helped the Comets (31-11-5-0, .713) to gain a bit of ground as they continue to pursue the league-leading Stockton Heat. Second overall in the AHL, the Comets are off until they are back in Syracuse for games this Friday and Saturday; Stockton (30-9-3-1, .744) dropped a 6-2 decision in Abbotsford on Sunday.

If last season was about acclimation, this season’s theme for Walsh ― like so many young AHL defensemen ― is building consistency through the six-month road to the Calder Cup Playoffs. A strong skater with excellent offensive instincts, the earnest Walsh’s mandate now is to blend those elements into a strong defensive game and to do so nightly.

Walsh believes confidence has been a sign of his growth.

“I think knowing I can make plays, when to make plays, and when to keep it simple,” he outlined. “I think it’s still something that I’m learning. In my first year it was nice to just adjust to the style of play and the pace and the physicality. And now it’s been pretty challenging just to be consistent. I think that’s the biggest key, and that’s what everyone told me when I turned pro, that it’s a really long season.

“But ultimately, I think just getting the confidence and getting a little bit bigger and faster has helped, and just playing on a lot better of a team this year.”

It certainly is a better team. While Walsh endured a rookie season in which his club finished last in the league at 7-20-5-2 (.314), the Comets are a strong Calder Cup contender in 2022. A New Jersey AHL affiliate has not qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs since 2017, but the ice at the Adirondack Bank Center at the Utica Memorial Auditorium could be in late into June.

Playing deep into the postseason means ironing out the few remaining areas of Utica’s game that need work. Their early-season run has
provided Dineen and the Comets with some breathing room to do so despite 13 games in a 27-night stretch that starts this weekend in Syracuse.

The goal down the stretch? “I think just playing every game like a playoff mindset as we build,” Walsh said.

“Ultimately we’re trying to lock up not only the top spot in the [Eastern Conference] but in the whole league. I think when we play like we did [Sunday], teams are going to have a real tough time beating us.”