The Capitals took the first bite out of a full plate’s worth of off-season details on Thursday, the first day of June. Washington inked restricted free agent forward Nathan Walker to a two-year contract extension. The pact will pay Walker $650,000 at the NHL level and $125,000 at the AHL level for each of the next two seasons, and it guarantees the personable Australian winger at least $150,000 in 2017-18 and at least $175,000 in 2018-19.
Walker is a 23-year-old who primarily played on the wing before being pressed into service at center ice for AHL Hershey in 2016-17. He parlayed a summer camp invitation into a training camp invite with Washington in the fall of 2013, and got a break when Brooks Laich suffered a hip flexor on the first day of camp. That injury put Walker, then 19, on a line with Troy Brouwer and Chandler Stephenson and gave him his first taste of NHL preseason action in September of that year.
Along with Stephenson, Connor Carrick, Nate Schmidt and Tom Wilson, Walker was one of five Caps to make their NHL preseason debuts in a Sept. 14, 2013 preseason tilt against the Winnipeg Jets in Kingston, Ont. Walker and Schmidt each earned a primary assist in that game.
Three nights later in another exhibition against the Boston Bruins in Baltimore, Walker set up Wilson for the game’s first goal. Walker also earned a penalty shot opportunity in that game. After being passed over in two consecutive NHL Drafts, Walker’s strong camp showing earned him a Hershey contract that fall, and he posted five goals and 11 points in 43 games as a teenager in the AHL in 2013-14.
That performance was enough to convince the Caps to spend a third-round pick (89
th overall) on Walker in the 2014 NHL Draft, and he signed an entry-level contract with the Capitals less than a month later.
Following three more seasons in Hershey – a stint that included a playoff run to the Calder Cup final in 2015-16 – Walker is ready to compete for a roster spot in Washington this fall. The likely departure of veteran Daniel Winnik as an unrestricted free agent and the probable promotion of Wilson to a higher spot in the lineup figures to leave openings on both wings of Washington’s fourth line, flanking veteran pivot Jay Beagle.
Having played 202 regular season and 32 postseason games in Hershey over the last four seasons, Walker figures to be ready to compete for a spot in Washington’s bottom six as 2017-18 looms on the horizon. He totaled 34 goals, 79 points and 144 PIM in regular season action with the Bears, and he chipped in four goals, 11 points and 11 PIM in the postseason. In his best AHL season, Walker finished with 17 goals and 41 points in 73 games in 2015-16. He was named Hershey’s 2016 Man of the Year, Unsung Hero and Most Improved Player at the conclusion of that campaign.
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Walker is aiming to become the first Australian to reach the NHL.