With the goaltenders and partial-season players behind us, we move into a look back at the defensemen from this season, beginning today with defenseman Sean Walker.
Walker rebounded from a massive injury in October 2021 to play in 70 games, one of five Kings defensemen to play in at least 70 games. That alone made this season a massive step in the right direction, as he also made his playoff debut in Game 5 in Edmonton, playing in two of six games during the first round. Walker took a bit of time to get back up to speed, but got stronger as he went along.
LAK Statline – 70 games played, 3 goals, 10 assists, -3 rating, 36 penalty minutes
Playoff Statline – 2 games played, 0 goals, 0 assists, -1 rating, 0 penalty minutes
Possession Metrics (Relative To Kings) – CF% – 52.2% (+0.5%), SCF% – 51.8% (-1.1%), HDCF% – 55.2% (+1.7%)
Sean Walker’s season, in my opinion, follows a different path than this format typically sets up for, so we’re going to buck the trend a bit, at least here at the start of the article. A Trending Up / Trending Down format could work for Walker’s season, but it makes more sense to start by showing his progress on a chronological timeline, as opposed to an overarching approach.
Walker’s first two months were rough. He said as much, as he worked his way back to full health. Coming off of a massive surgical procedure that cost him all but six games during the 2021-22 season, it took Walker some time to get back to his best and the numbers reflected that. His shot attempt metrics weren’t all that different, but with Walker on the ice, the Kings were below 50 percent in both scoring chances and high-danger chances. In his first 25 games played, they scored 13 goals compared to 19 against. The eye test said that Walker wasn’t quite himself in those first two months as he rebuilt both comfort and confidence playing on his surgically repaired knee. The NHL doesn’t allow for a grace period in coming back, you’ve got to swim in the deep end. Walker’s early-season play reflected a player who went through those pains.
As he went on, however, he steadily returned to form. From December 11 on – exactly two months into the season – the Kings went from a minus-six goal differential with Walker on the ice to plus-four through the end of the season. The biggest step forward came in terms of those Grade A and Grade B chances. The overall possession metrics were relatively the same, but on a per/60 basis, Walker’s metrics rose.
First 2 Months, per/60
Scoring Chances (For / Against): 30.4 / 31.3 – 49.3
High-Danger Chances (For / Against): 12.5 / 12.9 – 49.3
Final 4 Months
Scoring Chances (For / Against): 32.5 / 28.5 – 53.3
High-Danger Chances (For / Against): 14.7 / 10.4 – 58.5
Huge improvements, with chances for going up and chances against going down, which meshes with the ten-goal swing in the right direction in terms of actual goals.
Those improvements were reflected by watching Walker’s play. He comfortably shifted between the left and right sides as he was asked to, growing more and more active in using his best asset as a player – his skating ability. When fully healthy, Walker is one of the best skaters on the Kings. He uses that strong skating ability to escape pressure in the defensive zone as well as he does to activate and join the rush offensively. It’s his bread and butter and when he’s at his best, he’s impacting games with his legs. As he got back towards his best, we started to see that in his play more and more.
“We probably got, from Walks, what we thought we would get this year,” Todd McLellan said. “An exciting, energized start, but one that was a little bit rusty, trying to find his timing and his place within the game and the team again. Once he found that, I thought he was and still is a quite solid contributor. His legs and his tenacity, once he got there, is something that we value and something that we needed.”
Overall, from a full-season lens, Walker’s numbers paint the picture of a high-event player. Stuff happened when Walker was on the ice. Expanding upon the three categories listed above – shot attempts, scoring chances and high-danger chances – the Kings both generated and allowed more when Walker was on the ice, as opposed to when he wasn’t. Looking strictly at shot attempts, no player had a higher relative total than Walker, as the Kings fired nearly eight more shot attempts per/60 with him compared to without. The other way, there were nearly six more attempts per/60 against, the second-highest total amongst regulars. Walker was a part of making things happen, with his skating ability helping in that department.
2023-24 Outlook– Walker is under contract for the 2023-24 season at a cap hit of $2.65 million. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent come the summer of 2024. Walker is a solid and effective NHL defenseman, who is more than capable of playing for the Kings. He also plays the position at which the Kings are deepest in the “NHL-ready” category. Walker was joined by Drew Doughty, Matt Roy, Sean Durzi, Jordan Spence and Brandt Clarke as right-shot defensemen to play NHL games this season. All six are under contract in 2023-24.
Walker said he would love to stay here in LA, that’s his preference, but acknowledged that might not be possible.
“Obviously, you know the guys that are coming up, you know where the cap is at, so we’ll see what happens. I know I can contribute and play here and that’s where I want to be, but at the end of the day the organization’s got to do what they think is best.”
Should Walker stay, he would compete for minutes on the second or third pairing, with his ability to play both sides and his versatility with various partners a factor going in his favor.
Walker is the first of six articles on the blueline, with a look at each of the other five regulars to come over the next week or so. Matt Roy will come tomorrow and we’ll work from there through the rest of the blueliners.
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