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Reilly Walsh has yet to play his 50th game as a professional hockey player, but somehow the 22-year-old Utica Comets defenseman’s journey seems longer.

He has now been part of the Devils organization for four years, drafted in the third round (81st overall) in 2017, the club’s fourth selection that year followed by Nico Hischier, Jesper Boqvist and Fabian Zetterlund. Since that time, he’s played three seasons of college hockey at Harvard, signed an NHL contract and lived through a pandemic.

He’s now settled in nicely to his first full American Hockey League season.

“I’m getting to know the lay of the land,” said the leading scorer among defensemen of the Devils affiliate, who lost their first game of the season Wednesday night after an AHL-record 13-game winning streak to start the year.

No one was unaffected by the pandemic, but Walsh’s situation was unique. He was a junior at Harvard, playing on a good team with a handful of other NHL-drafted players when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, cancelling the season. Unlike most college programs, Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League scrubbed the following campaign.

In theory, Walsh could have waited out the pandemic and played his senior season right now. Though there are worse places to pass the time than Harvard, hockey-wise that would not have been the best option for a player deemed ready to turn pro. And so, when the Devils came calling, he signed. His rookie pro season took place in a closed shop at the Devils’ practice facility in Newark, playing an abbreviated schedule against just a few AHL opponents

His final stat line read 33GP, 5G, 10A and he, like the rest of the Binghamton Devils’ young core, showed well while going over some expected bumps along the way. One of the detours came when it was announced about half-way through the abridged season that the team was moving to Utica.

Walsh acknowledged the challenges but maintained that there was a clear purpose and benefit to the 2020-21 campaign.

“I think for the core guys here, we (progressed) by leaps and bounds,” he said. “Last year showed us the adjustments we had to make to be here.”

Walsh says the great start by the Comets and the raucous reception the team has received in the community go hand-in-hand.

“Fans have made a huge difference,” echoing a similar refrain voiced by multiple Comets players, “the arena is packed, and they are loud.”

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Walsh has scored twice and added eight assists in 14 games. He says that the highlight for him so far this season took place in camp with the big club by playing two exhibition games, particularly one against Washington on the road. Like every young player growing up in the Alexander Ovechkin era, it was quite an experience to pull on a Devils jersey for the first time against the Russian superstar.

Playing in exhibition games may not seem on the surface to be the same as making your NHL debut but it is almost always a player’s first NHL action of any kind. The impression it leaves is unmistakable and unforgettable, as it was for Walsh.

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“It was just the coolest thing,” he remembers, citing the plane trip down to D.C., being told that he was going in the lineup that night and other small details that is hard for outsiders to see.

When Walsh signed with the Devils in the summer of 2020 much was made, understandably, of his family’s connection to general manager Tom Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald and Reilly’s father, Mike, played together in the AHL and were roommates. Mike Walsh had a long pro career as a forward, most of it spent in the New York Islanders organization. He’s now a teacher/hockey coach at Proctor Academy in Andover, New Hampshire. He has connections to many other people in the hockey world, including Randy Wood and Jim Vesey, father to Miles and Jimmy, respectively.

The connections don’t end there but you get the point.

“I think everyone I’ve met (in hockey), my Dad (already) knew,” he said.

“With Jimmy Vesey going to Harvard…that (played a role) in me going to Harvard.”

And as a student of the famed academic institution, where he plans to complete his sociology degree this coming summer, Walsh has an informed, analytical opinion. In fact, he half-apologizes if some of his answers sound too cliché.

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To wit:

“I’m a defenseman but (the objective) is to spend less time in the D-zone,” adding later in the conversation: “I know that it is kind of cliché but if you take it game by game, and be effective (every game), the points will come.”

On the moves to tweak the organization’s AHL roster by adding a few older pros and the outstanding play by Utica forwards:

“If you make one good pass to them, it could end up in the (opposition) net.”

And lastly, how about the call-up to New Jersey, that could come soon, or further down the line depending upon injuries and other factors, most out of a player’s individual control.

“We all want to get to the NHL,” Walsh explains, “but it’s going to be team success here (in Utica) that gets us all there. You have to play (with the team mindset) every game.”

So far, so good.

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