As far as freshman NCAA seasons go, Sammy Walker had one for the ages. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s seventh rounder in 2017 led all Big Ten rookies in scoring with 26 points, and was the first Minnesota Gopher to be named the conference’s freshman of the year. Walker, whose nickname is ‘Mr. Hockey’, centered the Gophers’ third line all season with sophomore Nathan Burke and fellow freshman Blake McLaughlin. The trio became such a dominant offensive force for the Gophers that fans began calling them the ‘BMW’ line.
While the Raw Charge writers were generally on the same page as to where Walker should be ranked, our readers were all over the place. Walker was ranked as high as seventh by a couple of readers and as low as 25th by others.
The large discrepancies with Walker’s ranking are valid, honestly. Although he had an incredible start to his NCAA season, there remain some questions about whether or not Walker can make a comfortable jump to professional hockey. His offensive talents and abilities are undeniable. The majority of Walker’s points came at even strength (including all ten of his goals), and he proved that he could contribute consistently at the NCAA level as a freshman. He was a confident puck handler, and used his deft edgework and hands to escape defenders and lead rushes.
Walker ditches the Sparty defense, and McLaughlin ditches the Sparty lead. pic.twitter.com/OlNZXZGHOg— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) January 20, 2019
Most of Walker’s goals were scored using his wrist shot, which isn’t necessarily heavy but deceptive. He can adjust the angle on it effortlessly to fool goaltenders and his release is lethal. But it’s not the only way he can score goals. When he doesn’t have the puck, Walker forces his way towards the net, where he makes himself available for tip-ins and rebounds. Walker processes the game quickly, and his high hockey sense allows him to jump on opportunities that others may not necessarily see in time. He’s also got soft hands, and when you factor in his skating, Walker is a threat on any breakaway chance he’s afforded.
Sammy Walker isn't called Mr. Hockey for nothing. pic.twitter.com/J2USrMW63o— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) November 18, 2018
Walker will return to the University of Minnesota for his sophomore season (with the rest of the BMW line), but he still has things to work on. Although he’s a lot heavier than the 141 pounds he was when he was drafted, Walker is still under the ideal weight for a player his height. We’ll see what his updated weight is once he arrives back at Minnesota for the school year, but at the moment, Walker needs to continue to build muscle in order to prepare for stronger competition in professional hockey.
An NCAA freshman can typically get away with less focus on the defensive side of his game, but that’s where Walker has to take further steps on the ice. He’s excellent at creating turnovers in the offensive zone which lead to chances as a result, but he tends to get outmuscled in puck battles along the boards at both ends of the ice. Again, his strength is something that needs continued work. His overall awareness in his own end needs some refining, but generally, Walker isn’t a poor defensive player. As he gets stronger, he’ll be more able to contribute in his own end.
Speed. Skill. Strength. Walker has two of them covered. If he can get the third, he’ll be well on his way to making the transition to professional hockey.