EL SEGUNDO, CA — It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Kings are doing whatever they can, within the realms of both capability and reality to accelerate their playing catch-up, in terms of improving their team, most notably by adding speed and playing faster.
One way they’re trying to do that is by pursuing college free agents who were late bloomers and went undrafted. The idea being that with their development system, considered to be one of the best in the National Hockey League, they have a better than average chance of turning that player into a bone fide NHL player.
Defenseman Sean Walker is, arguably, the Kings top undrafted college prospect, given that he has shown this season that he can do more than hold his own at the NHL level. Indeed, he can skate, handle the puck well and he is a right-hand shot blue liner, the kind of defenseman that’s in short supply in the Kings system.
“Every year, we go over some kids with regards to college free agents and free agents, in general, and we were talking about trying to get faster, puck-moving, character kids, and when you’re talking about Bowling Green University, [Vice President and General Manager Rob Blake and [Director of Player Personnel Nelson Emerson , both of whom played at Bowling Green], do their homework,” said assistant general manager Michael Futa. “It’s like getting insider information, as far as character is concerned. On top of that, [Kings amateur scout] Tony Gasperini went to bat for this kid. I spoke to [Walker] on the phone, and his agent, and agreed to an American Hockey League contract [for the 2017-18 season].”
“Like we do for those guys, we told him that this is his foot in the door and make the best of it and he went down and did everything we asked,” added Futa. “He just continued to improve and then, we talked about the lack of depth on the right side and we made a decision—he was starting to get his name in our discussions about a call-up last year. But we had him on an AHL contract. We couldn’t have called him up if we wanted.”
After all the hard work and resulting improvement last season, Walker earned a two-way contract with the Kings this season.
In 19 games with the Kings this season, Walker has scored one goal and has added two assists for three points, with a -6 plus/minus rating and two penalty minutes. In 21 games with the Ontario Reign of the AHL, he has scored six goals with 11 assists for 17 points, with a +5 plus/minus rating and 15 penalty minutes.
Walker is currently back with the Reign while the NHL is on its annual All-Star break. He will participate in the AHL All-Star Classic, January 27-28, 2019, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is expected to be recalled by the Kings once the NHL returns to action.
“It was one of those things where we talked internally about whether we [sign him to an NHL contract] before training camp or after,” Futa explained. “But he had done so much, we thought, ‘why not reward him and get him in the house and make him feel comfortable?’ Then, he goes down to Ontario and continues to work. The way the game has evolved—we want to be faster and move pucks—he got his opportunity [with the Kings] and he’s making the best of it.”
“It’s a great story,” Futa elaborated. “Seeing that he was a captain at Bowling Green, we knew we were going to get a good kid, character-wise.”
Coming into this season and even in the Kings training camp, the expectation was that Walker would spend the season with the Reign. But injuries on the Kings blue line opened the door for him.
“When you come into camp, you want to try and make the team out of camp,” he said. “But with the numbers they had, I knew that I was going to have to play in the American Hockey League, perform well, and if there was a chance that I was going to get called up, it was because there’s was an injury, or something. Obviously, I got my chance and I’ve taken advantage of it.”
Perhaps the biggest reason that Walker is making a splash this season with the Kings is his ability to provide offense from the blue line and by jumping into the play, given the opportunity, not to mention the fact that he is constantly looking for such opportunities.
“At that age, for some kids, you have to plug’em into the wall to get’em going,” Futa noted. “For others, you have to pull’em back. Part of what has made [Walker] effective is that willingness to jump up into the play and be involved and understand that sometimes, it’s not going to go great the other way. But talking to Blakey the other day, moving forward, we want to be a team that takes those chances to score goals and outscore teams rather than try to sit on a one-goal lead and try to be safe all the time. We want to be more industrious that way.”
As Futa alluded to, that kind of aggressive play up ice by a defenseman is risky, often too risky, something Walker used to be.
Indeed, coming into his first season in professional hockey last year with the Reign, Walker jumped up into the play a lot, often leading the rush up ice. He continued to do that with the Reign, but he found himself out of position far too often, giving up glorious scoring chances and easy goals—he had to be “reined in,” as Ontario head coach Mike Stothers put it.
One year later, Walker appears to have learned his lesson.
“I was trying to do too much,” said Walker. “Back in college, I kind of had free rein. You can get away with a lot more. Coming to the pro game, that was kind of a transition period for me. I had to learn to pick my spots. It’s not about leading the rush, as much as I want to be an offensive player. It’s about following up and being in that second wave. That’s just something that I had to learn. Over the course of my year-and-a-half at the professional level, I’ve found a niche where I know when to go and when not to go—be that second wave and still have that offensive ability that I want to have.”
“I’m more mindful about the situation—what time in the period that it is, who’s on the ice, if it’s late in my shift—there are a lot of factors that I’m definitely being mindful of now,” he added. “At the pro level, it’s split seconds and then, [opposing players] are going to capitalize on their scoring chances. If I’m not there on the defensive side of things and the puck gets turned over because I’m trying to be too [aggressive offensively, the opposition] is probably going to capitalize. That was something that [the Reign coaches and the Kings development staff] preached and that stuck with me.”
“[At the NHL level], the offensive side is definitely still something I still want to be a part of, but it’s defense first. That’s even more important up here you really have to make sure that you’re on the defensive side of the puck and pick your spots.”
Picking his spots is something Walker continues to work on.
Futa noted that Walker still needs to work on his play in the defensive zone, but added that this something new for a young player.
“Like all young guys, there’s parts of his game, with regards to defending in his own end,” said Futa. “But what he brings to the table in terms of moving the puck and his ability to jump into the play and provide offense has been really good. He just has to get better every day, but he’s made progress on making the necessary adjustments.”
“The biggest challenge for me is the defensive zone stuff,” Walker noted. “Guys are bigger and stronger, the positioning—I’m going to have to outsmart guys and make sure that I have my positioning in order on every shift. That’s something I’ve got to focus on.”
Walker indicated that he has been getting advice and pointers from some of the Kings veteran blue liners.
“The defensive zone is something that I’ve got to continue to work on every day,” said Walker. “I’m getting better at it. I watch Drew [Doughty] and [Jake Muzzin] in practice every day. They’re awesome in the defensive zone so I try to take little things from them every day and add it to my game.”
“When I first came up, I was playing with Dion Phaneuf,” added Walker. “He was talking to me tons, giving me a lot of pointers. My second time up, I was playing with Jake Muzzin and we’ve been talking about the defensive zone—communication and positioning. He’s been great. He’s helped me a lot.”
On December 31, 2018, in a 3-2 overtime win at Colorado, Walker scored his first NHL goal, but only after what he thought was his first NHL goal had been disallowed.
“It was amazing,” he said. “The first one was disallowed, so it was a roller coaster of emotions. But the first one is amazing. It’s something you always dream about. It was really special.”
“My phone was blowing up with my family and friends reaching out,” he added. “It was awesome. My Mom and Dad was ecstatic. My girlfriend, all my friends were freaking out. All the text messages were really special.”
Overall, Walker’s play has given the Kings reason to be optimistic, and that might be understating things a bit, about what he might bring to the Kings in the not-all-that-distant future.
“It’s early, but it’s nice when it’s that early and the kid is making that kind of impact, showing that he has speed, is willing to move pucks and take chances,” Futa noted. “He shoots the puck well, too. Everything about him looks like it’s going to be a great fit.”
“There’s a big difference between college and the AHL and the jump from the AHL to the NHL is massive,” Futa added. “Those who can make the adjustment quicker make careers out of it and he looks like a kid who’s really starting to adjust well and his attitude is so refreshing. That’s only going to help him.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings rookie defenseman Sean Walker (center), shown here during a recent practice at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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