A year ago, the Red Wings traded a smooth-skating, top-pair defenseman to the Blues. Turns out, they were getting a younger one back. Jake Walman was supposed to be the footnote in the deadline deal that sent Nick Leddy to St. Louis for a second-round draft pick and proven NHL forward Oskar Sundqivst. He has become the prize.
Indeed, Walman has become one of the Red Wings’ best players and a core piece of their future this season in his first significant shot in the NHL. Even Steve Yzerman, who rewarded Walman with a three-year extension last week, would be lying if he said he saw it coming.
“I would love to tell you that, ‘Hey, I knew he was going to be this good, I knew it all along, I could see it.' That wasn’t the case at all," Yzerman said last week." I saw him play at Providence, he was a talented guy, good college player, and then I saw him play in the American League. We made a trade with St. Louis last year and he hadn’t played that much in the NHL, so truthfully, we really didn’t know.”
Walman, 26 at the time, had been stuck behind a deep blueline in St. Louis. He arrived in Detroit with fewer than 60 NHL games under his belt. He also walked into a great opportunity with a rebuilding team, where minutes were up for grabs. After spending eight seasons trying to break through with the Blues, who had drafted him in the third round in 2014, Walman said, “I know what it’s like in other places and I know what it’s like to be welcomed, and that’s what I felt” in Detroit. He played well enough with the Wings in what amounted to an extended tryout to earn another look this season.
“We were pleased with what we saw and honestly we thought, ‘You know what, jeez, I think he can play in the league, I think he should, he skates well, should be a solid third-pair D for us next year.’ That’s really what we thought,” Yzerman said. “His game just continues to get better and better.”
Derek Lalonde didn’t know what to think about Walman when he took over as Red Wings head coach last summer. As luck would have it, one of his best friends and former college teammates (and roommates) had coached Walman at Providence: Nate Leaman. Lalonde gave Leaman a call for some insight on Walman as a person and a player – what gets him going, what makes him tick – and Leaman told him, “He’s a guy that I maybe had to adjust my coaching on a little bit.”
“But I’ll tell you,” Leaman said, “some of the stuff he’s doing now is the stuff he did in college.”
Immediately, Leaman referenced the goal Walman scored Wednesday in the Red Wings’ win over the Blackhawks, the one where “he walked a guy at the offensive blueline and went in and ripped it (bardown, we might add) and everyone’s like, ‘Holy cow.’” Leaman said Walman pulled that exact move at least once a game at Providence. He’s also pulled it a few other times this season. Walman, who confirmed he’s always had it in the bag, said he isn’t sure where he learned it, “but I feel like I can use my feet to my advantage there. And it’s a good spot, people don’t really know that’s coming.”
“That’s footwork,” said Lalonde. “That’s a skill play. He’s had a couple of those now.”
The footwork comes from Walman’s dad. The skill came later. Walman said his dad put on him skates around the age of three and didn't give him a stick until the age of five or six: "All these other kids were trying with the stick, and he was taking me to the rink just skating.” (Pro tip from a guy who just signed a $10 million contract in the NHL: “I would say, if you’re teaching your kid how to play hockey, make sure he knows how to skate first.)
Leaman saw NHL potential in Walman as soon as he arrived at Providence as a freshman from Toronto. He also saw a defenseman who “would turn it over a lot because he would be trying to do a lot.” Leaman remembers a particularly “hellacious turnover” – egregious, Lalonde would call it – that season that cost the Friars a game against Notre Dame: “Sometimes you gotta get burned in order to learn,” he said. Walman began making the safer play as the season went on – eliminating risk from his game, Lalonde would call it – and wound up playing top-four minutes on the blueline for a team that won the National Championship.
“He was the only freshman in our top four,” said Leaman. “He just played a real, good, smart, simple game on that run, and I think a lot of things turned for him at that point.”
Walman really took off the next season. He was playing so well that both Canada and the United States asked him to play on their respective World Junior teams that winter. (Walman, whose mother is from Providence, holds dual citizenship.) Just after deciding to represent his native Canada, Walman dislocated his shoulder and tore his labrum in a game with the Friars and the opportunity was gone. He returned for Providence later that season, only to have the shoulder pop out again. Surgery followed.
“I think that set him back a little bit,” said Leaman.
A year later, Walman chose to turn pro. And a year too soon, if you ask Leaman. Walman might tell you that himself: “I bet you he would want his senior year back,” Leaman said. Instead, Walman spent the next five seasons toiling in the AHL, from Chicago to Binghamton, NY to San Antonio.
“Everyone that leaves college just thinks, ‘Oh, I’ll spend a little time in the American League, I’m gonna go,’” said Leaman. “It’s really hard to battle out of the AHL, and I give Wally a lot of credit because he just kept fighting, kept battling and kept getting better and better. You’re just happy for him because he’s becoming the player that a lot of people believed he could be, including me.”
The key word there is becoming: Walman still has tons of room to grow. He’ll tell you his NHL career is “young.” Lalonde will tell you he’s still learning how to “play within himself,” just like he did at Providence. A moment after praising Walman for his goal against the Blackhawks, Lalonde will remind you that he committed a power play turnover the game prior against the Flyers that “wound up in the back of our net” in a disappointing loss. He’ll tell you that in order for Walman to be a winning player every night, “he’s going to have to balance managing his game.”
But make no mistake: Lalonde marvels at the strides he’s made this season. After Walman underwent another shoulder surgery last summer, the Wings weren’t even sure there was a spot for him in the lineup once he was healthy enough to play. He played about 13 minutes in his season debut in November. Now he’s playing north of 20 minutes a night next to Moritz Seider on Detroit’s top D pair. He’s scored seven goals, first among Wings’ defenseman in the wake of the Filip Hronek trade, he’s killed penalties and he’s locked horns with the opposition’s top line almost every game.
“We did not see that,” said Lalonde. “I did not have expectations of him being in our top pair and us using him like we are. That’s a huge credit to him.”
Walman is also a team-high plus-16, which not count for much these days but certainly counts for something on a team with a negative-19 goal differential whose other defensemen are all in the minus. If you prefer the fancy stats, Walman has the highest five-on-five expected goals share on the Wings, while he and Seider have produced one of the NHL’s highest five-on-five expected goals shares as a defensive pair. Walman, for his part, is only aware of stats like these when someone mentions them to him. He and Seider just want to play hockey.
“You can tell when you have a good game,” he said. “I feel like we’re doing really well, not just in the O-zone but in the D-zone, too. All those analytics and sh*t come from hard work and getting the puck out quick and all that sh*t. Shutting guys down is what we’re trying to do.”
By trusting in Walman, the Wings have filled him with confidence. He said he wakes up the morning of every game fired up about taking on the other team’s best players, “especially those top, top teams.” The more he answers the challenge, the more he looks like the star Leaman remembers.
“Every coach will tell you, confidence means so much. I think for a long time in pro hockey, he’s been playing not to make mistakes because he wants to be in the league and he wants to become a trusted player. And now it looks to me like Wally’s playing. He’s playing the game. He’s confident in his game and he doesn’t go out there just playing safe anymore. He’s going out there and he’s using his abilities,” Leaman said.
Top-pair defensemen aren’t just lying around in the NHL, much less for $3.4 million per year. Yzerman may have found one in Walman, who’s become a fan favorite in Detroit. It felt fitting that he signed his extension the morning after the Red Wings were punched in the mouth last Monday by the Senators, a rival in in the making. In an otherwise ugly loss, Walman was one of the few Wings who punched back. The Toronto native said he feels “wanted in Detroit.” He said he feels "at home."
“I kind of felt that in college, too,” he said. “When you play hard and you’re sacrificing yourself for the team and doing all the little things like blocking shots trying to win games, I feel like (the fans) notice when you’re really putting in the effort. And the type of city Detroit is, that’s kind of the way I look at playing defense: hard work, blue collar, sacrifice.
“I think especially in Detroit, a lot of people know hockey and are really knowledgeable about hockey. You can tell during the games that they actually know what’s going on. You can see how amped they get and how loud it gets when we win. The city feels tight-knit, like everybody sticks up for each other. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Walman paused for a moment, smiling at a thought somewhere in the future. Then he went on.
“So hopefully, if not this year, the next few years we can really do something special," he said. "That’d be sick.”