Nikita Zadorov became one of the hottest commodities on the open market in a blink of an eye. After ESPN’s Kevin Weekes announced that he had requested a trade out of Calgary, almost every contending team was in on the hulking defenseman who was carrying the all-important expiring contract. Surprisingly, even with all the hype, Zadorov only netted a 3rd and 5th round pick from Vancouver. With the deal done and dusted, it brings us to an interesting conversation regarding Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Sean Walker.
Zadorov stands in at 6’6″ and nearly 250 pounds and plays a style of hockey that oozes playoff potential. The age of the hulking defensemen is still alive as the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche, and Tampa Bay Lightning have proven over the last 4-5 years. Over his 11-year career, Zadorov – the former first round pick – has totaled 617 blocked shots, 1,632 hits, and has averaged 18:11 TOI for the Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Avalanche, and Flames.
He reached a career-high in 18 assists and 22 points in 2021-22 in just 74 games and then scored a career-high 14 goals the following season alongside 21 assists in a full 82-game season. The Flames, who were once a contending team not too long ago, have fallen from grace rapidly and with a slew of pending UFAs, it was high time to make a move.
Other Flames defensemen that have gained attraction include Noah Hanifin – the former 5th overall pick back in 2015 – and Chris Tanev – who plays a bruising style of hockey with his propensity to block shots. The upcoming class of 2024 doesn’t carry a lot of high profile defensemen and that’s where the Flyers come into play with Walker – as well as Nick Seeler and Marc Staal to a lesser degree.
Filip Hronek, Shayne Gostisbehere, Brady Skjei, Tyson Barrie, and Tyler Myers represent the important pending UFAs that could be dealt at the deadline, however with how well Hronek has played for the Vancouver Canucks this season – and considering the price of acquisition – he will more than likely be retained by the club.
Teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Carolina Hurricanes, and New York Rangers might be hard-pressed to trade their respective defensemen – Gostisbehere, Skjei, and Erik Gustafsson, respectively – as they will be in the hunt for a playoff spot. So that really only leaves Myers and Sean Walker as the scoopable assets.
Walker’s strong start to the season has him ranked 10th overall in points amongst all UFA and RFA defensemen, a list that also includes Moritz Seider and Sean Durzi. He has bounced back in a big way after coming back from a torn ACL and MCL back in 2021. He had fallen out of favour in Los Angeles with the ascension of Mikey Anderson and the Kings needed to make room to re-sign Vladislav Gavrikov, which allowed the Flyers to scoop up the defenseman and a few other assets this summer.
In just 23 games for the Orange and Black, Sean Walker is already just one goal away from tying his career-high of 5, 13 points away from his career-high in points of 24, and has averaged 21:15 TOI which is 2.5 minutes more than his previous best that he set back in 2019-20. He has also blocked 37 shots and finished 29 checks with a 10:10 giveaway and takeaway ratio.
His CF% sits at 51.7%, CF% rel is 1.8, FF% is 54.1, and FF% rel is 2.8 – all of which would be close to his career-best 2019-20 season that put him on the map. He has instantly become a pillar of the back-end and it’s no surprise that he sits 3rd in ATOI behind only Travis Sanheim (25:55) and Cam York (22:08).
A big reason as to why Walker’s ice-time has risen compared to previous seasons has been his inclusion on the power play as he usurped York for several weeks. In terms of special teams, Walker has played in 30.9 minutes with the extra man, tallying 2 power play assists along the way, while playing in 59.4 minutes shorthanded, while claiming 2 goals and 1 assist. His previous high in minutes on the power play was 73.5 in 2020-21 and 85.0 minutes shorthanded back in 2019-20.
So while Sean Walker has had a great start to the 2023-24 season, the question now is targeted towards the Flyers management group as they figure out what to do with the surprise pending UFA defenseman. Does the new management group want to keep him around beyond this season or will they rid the team of all of their pending UFAs?
The Flyers currently have 3 defensemen on expiring contracts with Egor Zamula being the fourth as an RFA. Sanheim will have 7 more years remaining on his contract, Rasmus Ristolainen will have 3 more years after this season, and York and Louie Belpedio will each have 1 – of the defensemen that are currently on the roster.
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms are currently carrying Emil Andrae, Ronnie Attard, Adam Ginning, and Helge Grans in the minors. Attard currently paces the defensemen with 4 goals and 8 points, followed by Ginning’s 7, Andrae with 5 points in 10 games, and Grans with 4 assists.
Before the season started, there was a lot of talk about prospects like Andrae and Attard breaking through in training camp to make the big club and while Andrae did manage to get in some meaningful games, the Flyers had too many cooks in the kitchen and sent him down to the minors to marinate properly.
Staal is all but likely to be traded at the deadline, which was something that was discussed before he signed his contract with the Flyers this summer. Seeler is a very intriguing piece because he plays the exact style that John Tortorella looks for and he is only affecting the cap with an annual hit of $775,000 – which makes him a 50/50 piece.
Either the Flyers see his immense value and keep him around as a 5th-6th defenseman or they can trade him near the deadline as his value rises and contending teams look for the cheapest contracts to fill the void.
It boils down to the vision that Keith Jones and Daniel Briere carry because in previous years we’ve heard their predecessors talk the talk but they very rarely walked the walk. Almost every stage between this past off-season all the way to the summer of 2024 is going to be monumental for the Flyers because it is going to dictate the path of their rebuild.
Just based on verbiage and how they’ve actually played this season, they will not be operating in a full-tear down like the San Jose Sharks or the Chicago Blackhawks. They want to build a foundation, fortifications, and a system for the young players to eventually join. They don’t want to wait for the Cutter Gauthier’s and the Matvei Michkov’s to be table-setters; the system has to be in place before their arrival.
With that mindset, Sean Walker could be seen as a part of the present and future if he continues to excel. Tortorella is using him in all situations, he’s one of the top options off the bench, and his analytics point to an even better season than his goals and points might dictate. However, his value will be sky high as we approach the trade deadline and with so few options available, Walker becomes the alpha for most contending clubs.
Teams try to wheel and deal well before the trade deadline date and last year we saw a lot more teams pushing the envelope. The NHL is more wide open than ever before, which allows a lot of the bubble teams and potential dark horses to put their hat in the ring. With more teams trying to improve, that leaves less options on the open market, which would then really make the Flyer trio shine.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, went all in last season as they acquired 3 defensemen and paid a pretty penny for each. It is still a little surprising that even with all the hype and bidding for Zadorov, the Flames only netted a 3rd and a 5th round pick. The Flyers can surely hope for a 3rd and a 4th at minimum with a chance of potentially scooping up a 2nd rounder, depending on the landscape.
As we enter the month of the December, the Flyers can patiently sit back and wait as Sean Walker continues to play his way into the team’s top-3 on defense, while showcasing his stuff for the rest of the NHL to see.
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