PHILADELPHIA — Expectedly, several Philadelphia Flyers players are listed on The Athletic’s most recent trade board, and are likely to remain until the deadline on March 8 unless they’re moved earlier.
That includes, of course, Sean Walker — third on the board, behind only Calgary Flames defensemen Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin.
If you’re just now starting to pay attention to the Flyers now that the Super Bowl has come and gone, here are the quick bullets on Walker: he’s a pending unrestricted free agent, is a coveted right-handed shot, and, at 29 years old, is playing the best hockey of his career and has been an important contributor on what has been a surprisingly strong squad.
The Flyers’ success — they’ve now reeled off four in a row coming out of the All-Star break, including a 5-3 win over the Coyotes on Monday — is what makes the upcoming deadline so fascinating. And what they do with Walker could be their most intriguing, and consequential, decision for the remainder of the current season.
At this point, most outside observers expect Walker to get moved. Even though the Flyers aren’t “shopping” Walker, according to coach John Tortorella, “we’d be dopes if we didn’t listen.”
“If we feel it’s the right thing to do for the future of the organization, we’ll do it,” Tortorella said last Friday.
So is moving Walker the best thing to do for the future of the organization? That depends on how you define the future.
In the immediate future, moving Walker could significantly hinder the Flyers’ playoff hopes. If any of the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins or New York Islanders get it together and go on a winning streak, they could conceivably leapfrog a Flyers team that might be down a few bodies after March 8.
Walker and fellow pending free agent/trade board occupant Nick Seeler have been paired together for much of the season, posting a 53.0 percent shot-attempt percentage and 55.1 percent expected goals percentage headed into Monday. At five-on-five, they’ve been on the ice for 27 Flyers goals and 21 against. Walker has helped the Flyers play that fast transition game they’ve displayed on many nights, while Seeler still leads the league in blocked shots, recklessly and effectively throwing his body in front of anything that moves.
One pro scout who requested anonymity to speak freely and who is familiar with this season’s Flyers team called Walker “arguably their most consistent (defenseman) this year.”
Potentially removing Walker from the lineup “hurts them,” the scout continued. “It hurts their consistency, and probably creates more mistakes down the stretch — costly mistakes. They trust him at six-versus-five closing the game, they trust him on the (penalty kill). Even though on paper they would have some depth defensively to do it, they’re all at different points of their careers with consistency, and mistakes. I think they’d really miss him.”
One of those depth guys is Jamie Drysdale, who would presumably get moved up if Walker was dealt. The 21-year-old defenseman hasn’t been poor, but Tortorella, who has had Drysdale lately on the third pair, termed him as still a “work in progress.”
“I think he has a lot to learn about positioning, time and space,” Tortorella said. “The overall positioning, understanding angles, understanding checking forward. We have a lot of work to do there. And we expected that with a 21-year-old kid. The upside, the skating and his (escapability), it’s really encouraging. But as far as his overall game, there is a ton to work on.”
The positives and negatives of Drysdale’s game were on display Monday. He got lost a bit in the defensive zone moments before Matias Maccelli’s goal gave the Coyotes a 2-1 second-period lead. He scored a third-period goal to tie the score at 3-3, throwing the puck toward the front of the net and getting a fortunate bounce off of Matt Dumba’s skate. But, then he got beat by Jason Zucker at the defensive blue line with the Flyers holding a late 4-3 lead, forcing Samuel Ersson to make a stunning glove save to preserve the win.
Drysdale said the biggest challenge for him joining a new team mid-season has been “getting used to guys’ tendencies.. … It takes time to figure that out, and once you’ve got that locked in, it makes the game easier.”
It’s been a juggling act on the blue line for the coaching staff ever since the acquisition of Drysdale on Jan. 8 gave them eight healthy NHL defensemen.
The solution, more often than not, has been to dress seven defensemen and 11 forwards. Of the 14 games the Flyers have played since the Drysdale deal, they’ve dressed seven defensemen in 10 of them, including on Monday night, even with Rasmus Ristolainen out with what the team is calling a “minor upper-body injury.” The little-used Marc Staal drew in.
On Monday morning, Tortorella said his frequently dressing seven defensemen is because there just isn’t anyone that should logically sit for an extended period of time. That includes Egor Zamula, who was scratched for Saturday’s game against Seattle, but is a young guy who has taken steps in his development and needs to play on a regular basis in order to keep progressing.
“It’s not like I want to do it that way, it’s kind of (out of ) necessity now when we made that deal with Jamie,” Tortorella said of his 11-7 setup.
And what are the pros and cons of dressing seven defensemen, from a player’s perspective?
“Benefit is we get some extra bodies and can use more guys in different situations. You’re not relying on certain guys with heavy minutes,” Travis Sanheim said.
“The downside to it is you’re playing with more than one partner for most of the game so sometimes that’s tough when you’re switching. It’s usually a lot easier if you can stay with one guy the whole game.”
Sanheim in particular has had a few different partners since the Drysdale trade. He was with Drysdale for the newcomer’s Flyers debut on Jan. 10, and for a handful of games after that, but the Flyers have been outscored 7-1 at five-on-five with them on the ice together. Sanheim has also played with York, whom he spent most of the season alongside before that deal, but lately, it had been he and Ristolainen making up the top pair.
Tortorella has said he prefers Sanheim to play the right side, rather than the left, which is where he is when he’s out there with the right-shot Ristolainen or Drysdale. And, Sanheim also admitted that he’s more comfortable on the right, which is where he played on Monday again with Ristolainen out.
“Feel a little bit more comfortable over (on the right side), especially in this system that we’re playing, checking forward,” he said, explaining that it could be his stick positioning on the right that helps him to better create offense — something he showed in the second period, driving the net and slipping the puck past Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka on a goal that was overturned after an offside challenge.
“I like it in the O-zone,” Sanheim continued. “I like that I can see the whole ice, use my legs pretty good getting off the line. Probably prefer the right, but I can play both sides, and (I’m) comfortable. It seems like I’m flipping every game, every shift, but I’m comfortable on both sides.”
Tortorella, too, would like to get Sanheim back on the right side on a more permanent basis.
“In the big picture as we keep on going here, I’d like to see him fall back on the right side,” said the coach. “I think he’s a better player there.”
One potential way for the Flyers to make everyone more comfortable, then, might be to deal Ristolainen while trying to re-sign both Walker and Seeler. And, Ristolainen is still on that trade board too, although any potential deal involving the big right-hander would almost certainly result in the Flyers having to retain part of his $5.1 salary cap hit.
If the Flyers are truly placing an importance on making the playoffs this season that could be a route they take, depending on how much interest there would be in Ristolainen, who is still a polarizing player. Walker is simply more valuable to the Flyers now than the towering veteran, who missed the first month and a half with an undisclosed injury.
In the meantime, they’re rolling again, no matter who is out there. All of those problems defensively before the All-Star break that resulted in a five-game losing streak have been remedied, at least for now, and all of the defensemen in the lineup deserve some credit for that.
“We knew what we’re capable of and what our game looks like,” Sanheim said. “Happy that we came back with the right mindset and got right to it.”
(Top photo of Sean Walker: Kyle Ross / USA Today)