“It definitely put a smile on my face,” Walker said. “It’s good to be back with the guys and everything like that.”
But while Walker’s odyssey seems to have come full circle — waived by the Capitals, then claimed by the Edmonton Oilers, who then waived him three weeks later only for Washington to claim him back — Walker could be on the move again this month. The Capitals initially waived him in an attempt to send him down to the American Hockey League because he wasn’t cracking their lineup often enough. And now that the team is fully healthy and playing well, there’s even less chance he could break through for regular NHL playing time.
The NHL’s holiday roster freeze is in effect, and though Walker was placed on waivers before the freeze, he can’t be sent down to the AHL until the freeze ends Dec. 28 at 12:01 a.m. Unless another team put in a claim on him during this most recent 24-hour waivers period, Walker shouldn’t need to be placed on waivers again until he has been in the NHL for 30 days or played 10 games. With Walker on board, Washington has two extra forwards on the roster, and it seems unlikely that he would leapfrog 13th forward Devante Smith-Pelly if there aren’t any injuries.
“Right now, he’s got to stay with us through the roster freeze, and he’ll be with us until after winter break here,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “Then we’ll have to decide. He needs to play hockey. He’s played what now, nine or 10 games max? That’s just not enough for a young player.
“So, we’re going to evaluate that and then make the right decision for the player — not necessarily for us right now, but for the player. If we can get him in or if we have something happen in terms of our roster, then he’ll go in. If not, you know, we’ll have to make that decision if he goes to Hershey, but he needs to play. He needs to keep growing his game. It’s great to be in the National Hockey League, but it doesn’t help you to not play.”
Walker has played just nine games — seven with Washington and two with Edmonton. The 2014 third-round pick made the team out of training camp, a feel-good story as he became the first Australian to play in the NHL. He scored a goal in his debut and even received a call from Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Walker’s fight to make it as a hockey player included leaving his family at just 13 years old to move to the Czech Republic and play there, so his NHL debut seemed to be a fairy-tale ending.
But it also marked the start of a typical NHL career for a fringe fourth-line forward. Walker struggled to get consistent playing time, appearing in back-to-back games just once as he was beaten out by other forwards. Even when injuries hit, Trotz preferred playing some recent call-ups over the speedy Walker, and Trotz said he wanted the 23-year-old to improve his wall play. The coach also pointed to Walker not killing penalties, though he often logged shorthanded time in the AHL. When the team needed to start clearing salary-cap space room because Andre Burakovsky was coming off injured reserve, Walker was placed on waivers.
“It was good to see a different side of the league, I guess,” Walker said. “It was a good experience. I’m always trying to grow, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice. There’s certain things you can take in and then take from there. But, yeah, just trying to take it all in and enjoy it, right?”
Said Trotz: “Obviously, we weren’t getting him in the lineup here and Edmonton got him in a couple games and he saw how other teams do things and where he maybe stacks up not only with our guys but other organizations’ guys. So, you know, we just talked real briefly, and we’ll have a longer discussion about where his game needs to go next. But I know for us that he has some of those great qualities as a young man. He comes to play, he’s very competitive, and he’s going to get better all the time. He’s got a great spirit about him that you can’t measure in stats and all that. I know when he flew in yesterday the guys were really happy he was back, and I know they were all cheering for him. Good to have him back, and hopefully we can give him some direction of where we want his game to go next.”
Here’s how Washington’s lineup is expected to look Friday night against the Arizona Coyotes:
Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Evgeny Kuznetsov-T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky-Lars Eller-Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Scratched: Devante Smith-Pelly, Nathan Walker
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Christian Djoos-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Madison Bowey
Scratched: Taylor Chorney
Philipp Grubauer (starter)