Previous iterations of the Iowa Wild were built for a big, physical American Hockey League. Skilled players skated alongside hulking bruisers like Cody McLeod, Kurtis Gabriel, or Mike Liambas. But this year, the minor-league squad is making a sea change to feature the speed and skill of Minnesota's prospect pool. Newly-signed former Gopher Sammy Walker is the manifestation of this change in priorities for the Wild’s farm team.
“We want to be a fast team,” Iowa Wild head coach Tim Army said. “[Walker] can skate. He can really turn it up ice.” The Edina High School standout was noticeable on the ice during Iowa's opening weekend at Wells Fargo Arena. He tallied two points in his professional debut, including the game-tying goal to cap off a feverish rally late in the third period of Friday’s game.
But the late goal that forced overtime wasn’t the first time he’s been clutch. Walker made quite the splash in Iowa’s preseason schedule in Coralville, Ia., a little over a week ago. He not only scored in regulation but ended the game in overtime. “Just a couple of lucky bounces, I guess,” Walker said. “It gives me more confidence [Army] is putting me in those roles. I try to just take the opportunity and try to do as much as I can.”
Modesty aside, he’s had a knack for scoring big goals. He delivered in the clutch to take down a deep Michigan team in the 2021 Big Ten Tournament.
The former Maroon & Gold captain followed that up by scoring the game-winning goal against Penn State in the semifinals. In both goals, you can see his ability to get to the net, then find the puck on his stick in the right place.
His tying goal on Friday was more of the same. Walker was on the half-wall as the puck rotated to the point to Joe Hicketts. Daemon Hunt begins to call for the puck, and Hicketts moves the puck to him quickly. Walker notices this puck rotation on the blue line and takes a beeline to the middle of the ice. San Jose goaltender Aaron Dell makes the initial save, but because of the traffic in front courtesy of Joseph Cramarossa, can’t control the rebound. Walker arrived at the perfect time and found the back of the net.
“I saw it was going to the net,” Walker said, describing his first professional goal. “So I was just trying to get to the net and box out my guy. Luckily it just bounced right to me, and I kind of just whacked it in with my backhand.”
“He’s a smart player, and he’s got good hands,” Army said about the addition of Walker to his squad. “I think playing the middle was maybe a bit much for him, [Friday]. That’s going to happen sometimes with a young centerman. So in the third, we moved him to wing and just kind of let him and let him use his legs. He had a really good third and scored a really big goal.”
That change to wing stuck for Game 2 of the weekend. Army placed Walker opposite of Adam Beckman on the second line. Beckman was active from the get-go, thanks in part to Walker's presence. Beckman credited Walker’s skill for the uptick in his shots from in the second game. “You’re playing with guys you haven’t played with before,” the Wild forward noted. “Sammy is an awesome player, and I was lucky to play with him. He had an awesome game last night too.”
Unfortunately, quantifying that clutch characteristic is next to impossible. There are no real data points to say what makes a player more clutch than another. However, a coach’s ability to trust the player in pivotal moments where the team needs a goal is what will lead to more opportunities to provide those clutch moments. Walker’s fast and smart play on the ice is going to allow him to do just that. Gopher’s head coach Bob Motzko saw in the last three seasons. Now Tim Army is becoming a believer in Walker, too.