HERSHEY, Pa. – Forward Nathan Walker came to the podium missing a tooth and with a busted lip, evidence of the high-stick he took in Tuesday’s playoff game between the Hershey Bears and Charlotte Checkers. The penalty drew a double-minor and Walker, who plays on Hershey’s power play, was right back on the ice after the team trainer managed to stop the bleeding.
“It's the playoffs,” Walker said. “I would do anything for anyone in that room, I'd play for anyone. At the end of the day, we all want to win and I think in order for everyone to win on this team, we all have to buy in, which everyone is. It's just the way it is. You get high-sticked, who cares? You're going to go back out there and play.”
Walker plays the game with the same sort of persistence and tenaciousness as he showed by getting back onto the ice. He is relentless around the puck, battling with any player who stands between him and gaining possession. Though not the Bears’ best offensive player by any means, there never seemed to be a moment that Charlotte could let its guard down when Walker was on the ice because of his sheer determination to battle for and win the puck.
That determination was rewarded as he scored the Bears’ only goal of the game. He battled for position in the front of the net and got his stick down on the ice to redirect a pass.
“He's a gritty player, gets high-sticked, he's bleeding everywhere and he's right back out there, scores a big goal for us to get up in that period,” Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery said. “So yeah, those are the things that are his identity and what he does.”
Those type of qualities seem well-suited for a fourth-line role in the NHL and the Capitals may just be in the market for a fourth-line player this offseason given the team’s salary cap constraints.
With Carl Hagelin, Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly becoming unrestricted free agents and Andre Burakovsky, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin all restricted free agents, there is going to be roster turnover in the summer. Washington does not have the money to keep all of those players, but still must find a way to replace them all for next season. A player like Walker could be a cheap alternative to add to the fourth line.
There are some possible issues, however, the most obvious of which is the fact that Walker is set to become a UFA and may not even be with the Capitals organization next season. Riley Barber is also set to become a UFA and is not shy about the fact that he is ready to move on from an organization that he feels has given him little chance to prove himself at the NHL level. After six seasons in Hershey with only 11 total NHL games during that time, you could see Walker perhaps harboring the same feelings.
“I think if you're going to ask any hockey player in the world if they're not playing in the NHL, obviously you want to be,” Walker said. “That's where everyone wants to be. It is what it is.”
When asked, however, Walker indicated he was happy with the organization and would be open to re-signing with Washington.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “They've always been good to me and I've found a second home [in Hershey] pretty much. This is my sixth year with the organization now. They've treated me well.”
There are certainly some physical limitations Washington would have to consider before giving Walker an NHL role. At only 5 feet 8 inches and 179 pounds, Walker is very undersized. His style of play can also get him into trouble as he can get caught out of position chasing the puck leading to defensive breakdowns or forced penalties.
If the Caps re-sign Walker, with so many questions about his game he would certainly have to earn his spot on the NHL roster. But the salary cap being what it is, Washington is going to have to find cheap options to bolster its lineup. Based on how he looked in the AHL this season, the Caps could do worse than a player like Walker.
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