Jake Walman Has Played His Way Into a Tough Decision for the Red Wings

Winging It In Motown

He Griddy’d his way into the NHL spotlight this season. But truth be told, even without his now-famous OT goal celebration, Jake Walman has been an overlooked bright spot for the Detroit Red Wings this season, and he’s starting to get some well-deserved kudos for it.

Since returning to the lineup in November after offseason surgery, Walman has slowly played his way from a depth/extra defensemen into a top four role, and appears to be slowly earning more responsibility with each passing game. That’s not bad considering a lot of fans’ reactions to Walman’s initial return was “oh yeah, Jake Walman is still here.”

It also happens to be fantastic timing for the 26-year-old. He just so happens to be in need of a new contract; Walman will be an unrestricted free agent when the one-year, $1.05 million dollar deal he was awarded via arbitration expires this summer. That of course begs the question: will Steve Yzerman be the co-signer on Walman’s NEXT deal?

The Case For Re-Signing Walman

There are plenty of valid reasons to keep the Walman-Detroit relationship going. For Walman, he’s finally getting the long leash he needed to play himself into form, something he didn’t necessarily have in a “win right now” environment in St. Louis. He’s also playing on the top pair alongside a defenseman, Moritz Seider, that many believe is on track to be one of the NHL’s best in a few years. That’s a pretty lucrative situation, and one you probably won’t be able to find on many other NHL teams right now.

For the Red Wings, re-signing Walman lets them keep a top four talent they seemingly stumbled into in the fold. Analytics-wise, Walman hasn’t just been one of the Red Wings’ best defensemen, he’s been one of the best blueliners in the entire league. As Prashanth Iyer pointed out on Twitter, Walman is currently leading all defensemen (minimum 300 minutes TOI) in Expected Goals-Above-Expected per 60 minutes, meaning he’s been better at generating prime scoring chances than some players — like Erik Karlsson, Adam Fox, and Rasmus Dahlin — considered the best offensive defensemen in the league this year (all of whom, by the way, are in the Norris conversation.)

While Walman likely won’t ever be a prototypical shutdown defender, per se, his defensive play has been more than passable for a top pair role as well. Per NaturalStatTrick, he’s 27th among NHL defensemen in Corsi Against/60, meaning he’s in the top quarter of the league at suppressing quality chances. He’s also Detroit’s best defender when it comes to forcing turnovers (1.59 Takeaways/60) thanks in large part to his ability to force, then win puck battles along the boards or in tight spaces in open ice.

Walman’s year is certainly deserving of a big raise, and the fact that he’s shown excellent chemistry with Seider is encouraging. But as we’re always reminded, building a hockey team is a business.

A Tough Deadline Decision Looming?

While Walman’s season has been fantastic, the sample size isn’t necessarily ideal to get a big picture of idea of his future. Walman could very well continue his upward trajectory and develop into a solid top-pair-quality defensemen. This could also very well be a case of a player simply having a very good run of play.

Normally with young players, Detroit would have some time to sit back and get a better picture of where their career trajectory is headed. But again, Walman is an unrestricted free agent this summer, eligible to go to any team willing to throw a lot of money or term on the table.

That could leave Steve Yzerman in a tough spot. He certainly has cap space to play with. But Dylan Larkin is also an unrestricted free agent this summer, as is Tyler Bertuzzi. Yzerman is also one year away from having to open to checkbook for Seider, Lucas Raymond, Jonatan Berggren, and (barring a trade) Filip Hronek. Yzerman will likely want to keep a big chunk of change handy to make sure those younger pieces are locked in.

That means Yzerman is going to have to decide if he’s seen enough of Walman to deem him worthy of that remaining chunk of change. And if so, how much? And long of a commitment will he want to make?

The other question will be where the Red Wings are at the trade deadline. If the Red Wings wind up being sellers (or at the very least, partial sellers), Walman could fetch a return from teams in dire need of a top four defender, whether it be a solid prospect or a prime draft pick in what appears to be a very deep draft class.

So What’s Walman’s Future In Detroit?

We haven’t heard much about any contract discussions with Walman, but chances are the Red Wings would love to have him back if the price is right. If Yzerman can lock Walman into a two or three-year “prove it” type of deal, that’s a pretty solid score.

And if the price isn’t right, that’s a strong possibility too. Yzerman is still playing the long-game with this roster. And if there’s any indication that Walman wants a cap number or contract length that could potentially cause issues for future signings, like Raymond or Seider, it may be best to either sell high at the deadline (unless the Red Wings go on an absolute tear the next couple of months) or see if the situation changes once Walman hits the open market.

For now, we can continue being happy for Walman’s continued success this season.

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