TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. • No Blues prospect felt the impact of a season without a minor-league affiliate more than defenseman Jake Walman. And not in a good way.
Walman spent the first half of last season with the Chicago Wolves, the farm team of the Vegas Golden Knights. After 40 games there, he was sent to the Binghamton (N.Y.) Devils, the American Hockey League affiliate of the New Jersey Devils, in search of more playing time.
“Let’s just say it was different than from when I came in after my college season,” Walman said Monday. “I guess I expected it would be the same, but to go in there (to Chicago) with new management and a different team running it, it was tough to find a home. And that’s what I kind of felt last year.”
After his third season at Providence College, Walman turned pro and was assigned to the Chicago Wolves for the final 15 games of the 2016-17 season. But at that time Chicago was a Blues farm team.
Not so last season, when the Blues became the only one of 31 NHL teams without an affiliate in the 30-team AHL. Their players were largely split between San Antonio (then a Colorado Avalanche affiliate) and the Wolves. In Binghamton, Walman was the one and only Blues prospect on the roster, although he said the experience there was better than Chicago.
“It was a roller coaster to say the least, but we got through it,” Walman said. “I try not to harp on it at all. I kind of put that in the past. But for a first-year pro, I guess there’s not much worse situation.”
Now he’s back at the NHL prospects tournament, trying to re-establish himself as someone with a future with the Blues. You don’t make an NHL roster in Traverse City. That has to come in camp and the preseason. But you can jump-start a roster push, get your hockey legs back after a summer of training and gain some confidence.
That’s what happened here last season, when Walman finished second on the Blues’ prospects team in scoring — behind Tage Thompson — with two goals and five assists.
“I thought he was dominant last year, up in Traverse City,” coach Mike Yeo said. “I thought he was outstanding. We’re looking for him to continue that and obviously looking for him to take another step in our training camp this year.”
By his own account, Walman was only so-so in preseason play last year after his strong showing in Traverse City.
“I think I could’ve done better in the exhibition games, but it was my first time playing real hockey games, I guess you could say,” Walman said. “It’s easy watching those guys on TV and saying, ‘Oh, I could play with these guys.’ But then when you’re out there with Ovechkin coming down on you, it’s a little surreal.”
The Blues played the Washington Capitals twice last year in the preseason, and Walman saw action in both games. But Walman said that’s out of his system; he won’t be star-struck this year.
“I’m focused now, I’m dialed in,” he said. “I can be out there with those guys.”
A year ago, the last two roster spots on defense went to another youngster — Vince Dunn — and veteran Nate Prosser. At the time, Yeo said Dunn had been better playing without the puck than Walman.
This time around, Prosser is gone. Another player who was competing for a spot on defense last season, Petteri Lindbohm, is playing for Lausanne in the Swiss League this season.
So that clears out some of the competition. But unfortunately for Walman, the top seven Blues defensemen are back this year: Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson, Jay Bouwmeester, Carl Gunnarsson, Robert Bortuzzi and Dunn.
After spending his fourth consecutive summer training in his hometown of Toronto with Matt Nichol at the BioSteel complex, Walman is as driven as ever to make the Blues’ roster.
“Yeah, it’s been the only thing I’ve been thinking about,” he said. “I trained hard, I’m ready for it, and whatever happens, happens.”
And Walman isn’t obsessing over the numbers game, at least not like last year.
“Last summer, I was always finding myself on Twitter, looking my name up, seeing what people were saying,” he said. “But this summer ... I kind of keep my head out of it and I just play as hard as I can. I go to the rink, I practice as hard as I can. Whatever people talk about is what they want to talk about. I can only speak for myself on the ice and off the ice.”
Even if it doesn’t happen this year and he ends up playing in San Antonio, which is now a Blues affiliate, Walman may still have a future in the organization because veterans Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson are in the final years of contracts. There’s no guarantee that both — or either — will be back in 2019-20.
Walman, 22, said it has helped to have the backing of team management. In particular, Walman said he talked frequently over the summer with assistant general manager Bill Armstrong, who kept him on the right track. So while Walman’s luster may have dimmed in the eyes of some observers, the organization hasn’t forgotten about him.
“He’s a player that you can’t help but get excited about as a coach,” Yeo said. “When you watch him on the ice, and you see him practice — the way that he walks the line, the way that he shoots the puck, the skill set that he has. We’re hoping as a coaching staff, or anybody that’s watching him, what you’re hoping to see is some progress and some growth.”