Sean Walker has never played a hockey game in Western Canada. Heck, the only time he’d ever been in Vancouver was when he flew into the airport to pick up a work visa before continuing on to Southern California last season. And this week, as the Kings head on the road to face the Flames, Oilers and Canucks, the undrafted former Bowling Green captain will play an NHL game in his home country for the first time in his career.
Hopefully word of his skill set and recent play will continue to spread.
An exceptionally good skater whose bent skews towards the offensive end, the 5-foot-11 Walker has three goals and nine points in 34 games but has recently transferred his mobility into the defensive end to the benefit of the team. Known as a player with a hard, accurate shot who can jump into the rush and owns a number of attributes that align with a more up-tempo modern game, his defensive zone improvements helped the team defeat Anaheim on Saturday night.
He won pucks from Corey Perry and Carter Rowney in one-on-one battles defensively and showed good range at the other end to keep pucks in at the blue line and add options to the team’s offensive zone playmaking.
“He’s such a good skater that maybe even sometimes if he’s out of position even just a little bit, he gains ground with his stride, so it’s very nice to see him playing well,” Anze Kopitar said after the shootout win.
This is the Land of Opportunity for players like Walker, Paul LaDue and Matt Roy, all of whom shoot right-handed and have demonstrated that their games continue to evolve, which is a good sign for a group of players that at 24, 26 and 24 aren’t league infants but are still rookies with room to develop. All are strong skaters.
But lest we get carried away here, he’ll still need to prove that he’s an every day NHL player, and that won’t happen without some added consistency in his defensive game.
Interestingly, while Sean O’Donnell had some one-on-one time with Walker before the season, he offered clips of Minnesota defenseman Jared Spurgeon, a poised model of consistency who also uses his feet to avoid trouble — though at 5-foot-8, he’s more undersized.
But the league is smaller now, and defenders who are able to break up plays by getting sticks on pucks rather than out of sheer brute force will have a better opportunity to play than they did in prior eras. There will always be a requirement for strength and physical play and winning puck battles, especially in the playoffs, but as the skill in the league increases, the demands of defensemen will be different. It will be more difficult to use force to separate a higher skilled forward off the puck, which could give rise to the need to scout and develop players with good sticks and equally good mobility.
There were interesting conversations with both Walker and Willie Desjardins, who earlier today shined some light on effective modern defending and ways in which the Keswick, Ont. native will continue to improve as a player.
Sean Walker, on his ability to separate players from the puck against Anaheim:
I think it’s obviously one of the things that the coaching staff, development staff has been trying to work with me for the whole year, so going into games it’s one of the things I want to focus on and stuff. So, I think last night was a good example of my progression towards that, so I’m feeling more confident in the D-zone and my abilities to separate guys from pucks and box them out going to the net, so I think last night was a good example.
Walker, on minimizing mistakes and whether he feels his defensive zone play is trending well:
Yeah, for sure. I think especially the last couple games we’ve strung together. Not giving away as many pucks, making a lot more nice plays, not causing any turnovers that are going to result in scoring chances the other way, so I think that’s something that I’ve just been trying to focus on and I think it’s been working pretty well.
Walker, on how he uses his skating in the defensive zone, compared to the offensive zone:
Obviously, it’s one of my biggest assets, so I think in the D-zone just using it to close as fast as I can and get on guys and eliminate time and space and then on the other side of that in the offensive zone I’m using that to get away from guys and give myself time and space. So, I think it works both ways and it’s something I’ve got to continue to use.
Walker, on the growing reliance on “stick-on-puck” defending in the modern game:
I think the general rule is stick on puck first, then close, then finish, but I think for a guy like me, stick on puck is going to be huge because obviously there’s big guys that I’m not going to be able to physically outmatch against, so I think working on my stick first and trying to outsmart guys and get the puck away from them is huge for me.
Willie Desjardins, on Sean Walker:
I think he’s been better. He’s a good, young player and he’s got an upside with how he skates. Sees the ice well and can pass the puck. But it is a work in progress with young guys. It’s not like it’s easy for them, either. As a coaching staff, you always want more, but the good thing is I think he is capable of more.
Desjardins, on whether Walker is showing the type of upward trajectory he’d like to see:
I think the biggest thing, sometimes you’ll look and you’ll see a bad play and you’ll react just to that play. It’s better if you react by when the mistakes are less and farther between. It’s not that they still don’t occur. The big mistake, it will. But the way you see growth is ‘are they fewer between and farther apart?,’ and so that’s kind of how you measure that. And they are that. Like, he’s getting better. There’s been definite improvement.
Desjardins, on Tyler Toffoli continuing to generate scoring chances without scoring:
And that’s what we like about his game. He has that and he skates himself out of trouble and he’ll skate the team out of trouble. Late in games, he’s got that ability. So, that’s what you like and that’s something that he’s got to keep using. He’s got to be smart when he uses it, but it’s good. Like, that’s what experience does for you, and he’s getting that.
Desjardins, on whether there are other veterans he’d consider reducing their minutes or resting:
That’s a tough one. It’s kind of on a game-by-game basis, and it is true. There’s some veteran players where you already know what they’re going to give you. You already know. And you need to see more young players, but it’s always a tough situation with veteran players. It is. But at the same time, Kempe got 20 minutes for the first time, and he needs to get minutes. That’s a guy that needs to get it, so it’s good to see that.
–Lead photo via Adam Pantozzi/NHLI