What Should The Avalanche Do? Sean Walker Edition

Colorado Hockey Now

When the Colorado Avalanche acquired Sean Walker at the NHL Trade Deadline, he started out like gangbusters, registering eight shots on goal in just his second game with the organization, and scoring two goals just a few nights later. It looked like a match made in heaven, and it might still be, but his play appeared to dip over time.

Walker is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and I’m sure the Avalanche will have interest in retaining his services. Can they afford to keep him around? And if they can, should they really allocate their funds towards someone who will essentially be a third pairing defenseman for them?

Let’s dig in.

The Fit

Walker’s skating and mobility was evident from day one after the trade. The Avalanche are a team that like their defense to get up and down the ice, so it wasn’t really a surprise that the 29 year old defenseman hit the ground running. He jumped into the play a lot, sometimes leading the rush, and was even able to eat valuable minutes on the penalty kill. Colorado gave up zero powerplay goals in the 8+ minutes of ice-time Walker had on the penalty kill in the playoffs. If anything, they probably should have used him more there.

As time went on, the warts started to show a bit. Jumping into the play is great, but Walker had a tendency to pinch frequently, even at inopportune times. He’s a very aggressive player whose skating can get him out of a lot of trouble, but he seemed a little unpredictable, which burned the Avalanche on occasion. There also isn’t really any powerplay time to be had in Colorado, which might be something Walker wants in the long run.

The Numbers

In his first seven games with the Avalanche, Walker picked up three goals and an assist. In the following 22 games, including 11 playoff games, he picked up just three points. That’s a pretty steep drop-off in terms of production. That might hurt what he can ask for in free agency, but it’s a relatively weak class of free agents on defense, and the cap is going up. He’ll likely still get paid.

Walker’s possession numbers during the regular season weren’t bad, but they don’t really jump off the page. He also was sub-50% in terms of expected goals-for percentage. His playoff numbers are tough to wrap your head around, though.

With Sam Girard and Devon Toews missing a few games in the playoffs, he moved to the left side to play with Cale Makar, who is obviously a step up from his regular partner, Jack Johnson. Walker’s on-ice numbers are quite good. The Avalanche controlled 53% of the shot attempts with him on the ice, and he finished with a 55% expected goals-for percentage. Some bad luck on the ice did him in.

Walker was on the ice for four Colorado goals, and nine against, despite the Avalanche out-chancing and out-shooting the opposition with Walker out there. Given the numbers above, how could that be? Well, Colorado shot just 4.65% with Walker on the ice, and Georgiev saved just 88.16% of the shots with the defenseman on the ice. That gave Walker an absurdly low PDO of .928, far and away the lowest on the team. While the team did a lot of things well with him on the ice, the bounces didn’t necessarily go his way.

There’s also the matter of who he played with. Jack Johnson has the trust of the coaching staff, but the numbers show he kind of drags down everyone he plays with. With Walker and Johnson together (80 minutes), the Avalanche controlled just 46% of the shot attempts in the playoffs. With Walker on the ice with literally any other defenseman (100 minutes), they controlled 58% of the shot attempts. That’s a huge difference. Any other defensive partner and it might not have been so bad. This is something to keep in mind when evaluating Walker.

The Contract

Walker made $2.65 million this season, and is in line for a pretty big raise after having the best season of his career. This is a relatively weak defense class, and the salary cap is going up, so if you’re Walker’s agent, you’re probably licking your chops. There’s also one big thing that Walker has to his advantage – he’s a right handed shot. NHL teams covet right shot defensemen.

Dobber Hockey projects Walker to get a deal with a cap hit around $4.5 million. I’d say that’s a pretty good bet on what to expect. Walker turns 30 right at the start of next season, so this probably his best opportunity to cash in during his career.

Colorado currently has four defensemen making $4.5 million or more, so adding another might not be feasible. Colorado is also in the unique position of having two right shot defensemen in their top four, so there’s not really room for Walker to move up in the lineup. You’ve also got Sam Malinski knocking on the door for third pairing minutes, and he makes just $850k.

What’s The Verdict?

Barring the Avalanche moving one of their top four defenseman, there just doesn’t seem to be room under the cap to bring Walker back, especially with the uncertainty around Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin. The answer here seems pretty simple – let him walk (no pun intended) in free agency.

Looking at things from Walker’s perspective, there might be a better fit for him in free agency when you look at ice-time and opportunity. Colorado likes their top four, and Walker could probably find a bigger role on another team, much like he did in Philadelphia.

If you’re the Avalanche, I think you make that trade again any day of the week. Acquiring Walker allowed them to move Bowen Byram for Casey Mittelstadt, and there really wasn’t a downgrade in terms of on-ice impact between Walker and Byram. Only one team can win the Stanley Cup, so if you look at it from that perspective, it’s a failure, but Walker did what was asked of him and played well. There just doesn’t appear to be room for him in the long run.

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