by Zach Dooley | AHL On The Beat
From an AHL contract to an NHL defenseman, Sean Walker has had quite the eventful year.
Walker began his professional career last season on an AHL contract with the Ontario Reign, fresh off four seasons at Bowling Green State University. After he impressed as a rookie, especially as he ranked as a top-10 scoring defenseman in the AHL during his final 30 games, Walker signed an NHL contract with Los Angeles on July 3, 2018.
You can’t get called up if you’re not on an NHL contract, right?
“It seemed like we’d go watch, quote-unquote, NHL prospects, and we’d come back from Ontario thinking, ‘Walker looked good,’” Sean O’Donnell, Los Angeles Kings Player Development, said. “He had a good camp last year, and he just continued to get better and better and better to the point where he earned himself an NHL deal. I think he’s a guy that the rule changes and the way the game’s moving has really helped a defenseman like that.”
Walker noted that his biggest focus heading from year one into year two was improving his play in his own end. With his standout skating and offensive abilities, contributing at that end of the ice was never an issue, but making sure he was responsible in his own end was something he pointed out as a focus of improvement.
“I want to be as offensive as I can, but defense comes first,” Walker said. “I think that’s one thing we worked on a lot over the summer was that my d-zone was solid so that I still had the ability to jump up into the offensive zone and make plays. I think offense is a great part of my game but obviously defense comes first.”
After he went scoreless in his first three games to open the season, Walker posted three goals and six points from his next four games with the Reign. After a two-goal, three-point performance against Colorado, Ontario head coach Mike Stothers had high praise for his blueliner.
“[He’s an] effortless skater and was a factor in our end, as well as the opposition’s end,” Stothers said of Walker. “He’s becoming a dominant player in this league, I love what Walks brings to the table for our club.”
It took less than a month into the 2018-19 AHL season, and less than four months after signing his first NHL contract, for Walker to earn his first recall to the Kings, which came on October 22. He made his NHL debut the following night in Dallas and collected his first professional assist in the game. But as soon as it began, after four games, with his ice time dwindling in each contest, Walker was assigned to Ontario.
When he was first sent back to the Reign, the former Falcon mentioned that it was his defensive zone play that he was told to work on when he returned to the Inland Empire in November.
“The general thing was just D-zone and D-zone coverage,” Walker said. “Up [in the NHL], it’s so important to defend against all of the guys because everyone’s going to be able to capitalize on their chances. You have to make sure you’re limiting those and that was the big message.”
Stothers echoed the sentiments of the young defenseman, but also added that he “showed up there what he shows down here” – that he is a great skater who gets around the ice well. Stothers added that Walker’s high-end skating showed that he was a guy that was on the verge of translating his game to the next level.
“His skating makes him a guy that’s close to making it, but then when you go up, you see that he’s a little undersized, that maybe he’s got a bit of trouble in his own end containing or ending plays, which is huge in the NHL,” Stothers said. “You go into Dallas and you’re playing against (Jamie) Benn and (Jason) Spezza, guys like that, it’s not an easy task for any defenseman. It was good to see him get his feet wet and get indoctrinated. Maybe he’s another guy that gets another look and the next time he goes up he’ll be that much better for it.”
And get another look he would. After collecting three goals and 11 points from his next 13 AHL games, Walker got another opportunity to show what he can do at the NHL level, joining the Kings in the middle of an Eastern Conference road trip in mid-December.
In his first game back in the lineup, Walker was forced into an increased role after in-game injuries to Drew Doughty and Dion Phaneuf, as he logged a then NHL career-high 16:09 in the overtime loss against the Sabres.
“I think everybody will say that if you’re playing lots, it’ll be easier,” Walker said. “Unfortunately, the injuries happened, those are two big guys in our D core, but to get out there every other shift was good. You really get in a groove and you feel comfortable and a little confidence comes when you start making good plays so it was nice.”
Walker certainly felt more comfortable in his second time around in the NHL. Fast forward to the end of the month and Walker added another first to what has been a year of firsts, with his first career NHL goal… or so he thought.
Walker appeared to open the scoring on December 31 against Colorado, as he walked in from the right point and beat Avalanche netminder Semyon Varlamov. However, after the celebration and after getting the puck, however, the goal was whistled back for goaltender interference, as Walker’s monumental moment turned into just another play.
“I got the puck on the first goal and when they disallowed it, I threw that puck into the crowd,” Walker said.
But, as the modified saying goes, “puck don’t lie.”
Just a period later, Walker was rewarded, as he activated from the right point and beat Varlamov on a wrap-around, getting his second, first career NHL goal on the evening.
“It was definitely a roller coaster, pretty high and then pretty low, and then luckily I got the other one so it was good,” Walker said after the game.
While his first, first goal, moving in from the point, was relatively standard, how many times has he scored on a wraparound in his career?
“I think I can honestly say that might be my first wraparound goal, ever,” he said with a laugh.
Since 2018 was filled with firsts, what’s one more to kick off 2019? Walker was selected to participate in his first AHL All-Star Classic, representing the Reign alongside Sheldon Rempal at the event.
After spending the majority of the month with Los Angeles, Walker rejoined the Reign in time for the All-Star festivities, skating in three events during the Skills Competition, and tallying a goal in each game for the Pacific Division during the All-Star Challenge.
“He’s awesome, I’ve been really impressed with him,” Rempal said of his fellow All-Star. “He deserves to be up in the NHL right now. He’s really good. He skates really well, he gets up in the play, he makes smart passes and gets the puck to the net when he needs to. He’s an all-around good player and hopefully he can keep going as well.”
As of now, Walker remains with Ontario. But with a recent spot opening on the Kings’ depth chart after a trade earlier this week, a season of firsts could finally feature a third, with a return to the NHL.