Wild encouraged by Walker’s quick start

Photo: Tim Garland

📝 by Patrick Williams

The summer months were uncertain ones for Sammy Walker.

The shift to fall, however, has been a much different story for the Iowa Wild rookie forward, who has acclimated nicely to the pro game.

“It’s been a blast,” Walker said of his introduction to AHL life.

A 2017 seventh-round pick by Tampa Bay out of Edina (Minn.) High School, Walker and the Lightning could not find a fit following his standout collegiate career at the University of Minnesota. He became an unrestricted free agent and finally came to terms on a two-year entry-level deal with the Minnesota Wild on Aug. 18, three days after Tampa Bay’s draft rights had expired.

A trip to camp with the National Hockey League club followed in September, and the 23-year-old was on his way.

“Personally, it was the best opportunity for me,” Walker explained of his decision. “It’s been awesome to be in this organization.”

Walker’s Minnesota hockey bona fides are strong. He starred at long-time hockey power Edina for four seasons and was the program’s first skater chosen as Mr. Hockey as the most outstanding senior high school boys’ hockey player in the state. He competed at Xcel Energy Center, home to the NHL’s Wild, and committed to the University of Minnesota in 2015, while still a sophomore at Edina.

With the Gophers, he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2018-19, and then captained the club for his final three seasons, the first player in school history to do so. As a senior, he helped Minnesota win the regular-season conference championship and reach the Frozen Four for the first time since 2014.

But that was campus life.

Now the NHL contract was signed, September had rolled around, and Walker was off to training camp with the NHL club he had cheered for while growing up in Edina. There was captain Jared Spurgeon. And Matt Dumba. And Jonas Brodin. All long-time faces with the NHL team. Now they were sharing time at training camp with him.

“It was pretty crazy,” Walker said. “All the great players that are there. It’s high-tempo. It’s intense. You can’t think too much. You’ve just got to go and play your game and try to do your best.

“But it was pretty awesome to be on the ice with those kinds of players.”

From there it was off to Iowa to begin his professional career in the AHL. A different state, but still only three-and-a-half hours away down Interstate 35.

“It was definitely a jump from college,” Walker said of his early time with Iowa. “You’re playing against professionals now.”

Being in awe of competition can be a trap door for young players as they attempt to find their way at the pro level. Walker, however, quickly made a decision to focus on his own game and assert himself.

“I tried to just go out there and play my game and try to use my speed to my advantage,” the 5-foot-10, 174-pound Walker said.

And that he has.

Photo: Tim Garland

He had a goal and an assist in his pro debut Oct. 14 against San Jose. He had his first two-goal effort on Oct. 29 at Manitoba. He dished out three assists on Nov. 6 in Rockford. In 16 games, Walker has 15 points — one off the league lead among rookies.

Walker says that his shot needs work, but he has been willing to use it, recording at least one shot in 15 of his 16 appearances.

His speed has helped Walker to find early traction in the AHL. And in Iowa head coach Tim Army, Walker has an affable and noted details guy to help him round out the details of his game. Adding strength has been a top priority as well.

“It’s just fun to learn from [Army],” Walker said. “He’s always got ideas that he’s throwing my way.”

The early returns are encouraging. This past weekend facing the Western Conference-leading Colorado Eagles, Army used Walker on a top line with Adam Beckman and Steven Fogarty.

At 6-6-2-2, the Wild know they have plenty of room for improvement. Team speed is one step toward making a move in the standings.

“We have a ton of speed on this team,” Walker said.

“I think when we’re all moving and using our speed, getting in on the forecheck, backchecking, and opening up for guys, we can be a pretty dangerous team. We’ve got to play our game in order to do that.”