This time of year, every NHL team in contention for a playoff spot is evaluating their roster with added scrutiny. With the trade deadline under a month away, teams that feel their roster lacks a needed element are running short on time to add it. For the St. Louis Blues, the narrative has been all season that the team must add on defense, particularly on the left side. Marco Scandella has been a disappointment, Niko Mikkola is still developing, and the team needs an immediate answer to complete its top four, or so the narrative insists.
Meanwhile, one player on the fringes of the roster is making a case that he could be the answer they need. Jake Walman has been a prospect for the Blues for a long time but has never quite caught on in a permanent role. However, with his play in the last few weeks, there is an argument that the team should stick with the solutions they have in-house rather than turn to a costly trade acquisition.
Long Time Coming for Walman
The Blues drafted Walman in 2014, a draft that has turned out to be instrumental in building the current roster (they also drafted Ivan Barbashev, Ville Husso, and Sammy Blais, whom they traded for Pavel Buchnevich, the same year). But unlike some of his compatriots from that draft year, whose stars rose very quickly in the organization, Walman’s progression to the NHL took much longer. Despite a strong career with Providence College, he spent years in the American Hockey League, watching defenders like Vince Dunn, Mikkola, and others pass him by.
Finally, Walman began to make his mark late last season, playing 24 games at the NHL level and even participating in a playoff game. But once again, coming into the season, his role on the team was far from guaranteed. Star prospect Scott Perunovich was finally healthy after a devastating shoulder injury last season. Mikkola continued to seek playing time. Scandella was still in the fold, along with Torey Krug. The left side of the Blues’ defense was crowded, but head coach Craig Berube showed his confidence by starting Walman regularly in the early going. That is until Walman suffered a setback of his own with an upper-body injury early in December.
Back Before the Deadline
Walman returned to the lineup a few times since his injury, but it took an injury to Scandella to open a spot for a more permanent role. And now that Walman has it, he doesn’t seem keen on letting it go. He has played six games in a row and has looked strong in each game. His goal in Friday night’s showdown was critical, and showed his offensive awareness and skill, even in a short-handed situation (the Blues’ penalty had just ended, so the goal did not register as a short-handed goal). Most importantly, Walman’s metrics portray a player who is strong defensively and who keeps control of the puck, something the Blues certainly need more of.
Judging by those metrics, Walman excels at shot suppression (Corsi against per 60 (CA/60) is a measure of how many shot attempts happen with him on the ice). The Blues are middle of the pack in the NHL in CA, and an expanded role for Walman could help them move towards the top 10. The team is said to be looking for size on the blueline, and at 6-foot-1, Walman doesn’t provide that. But size isn’t a measure of skill. He turned 26 last week, and if the Blues are ever going to test exactly how high his ceiling is, it’s probably now or never. Will the team give him the chance to prove himself, or will general manager Doug Armstrong continue to try to reshape the Blues’ defense?
A Cheaper, Safer Option
One thing is for certain: Walman is doing everything within his power to prove that he’s the answer the Blues need. Now, the decision is in the hands of Armstrong and Blues’ management. There are a number of options on the rental market for defensive help. But trade deadline rentals are costly, and the Blues need to recognize the mountain they will have to climb in overcoming the Colorado Avalanche and the Vegas Golden Knights to make a serious playoff push this season. Walman is the cheaper, safer option, and keeping him in a permanent role could give them the chance to evaluate just how integral he is to the team going forward.
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.