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Bolts hope to turn Sammy Walker into next late round gem

After falling to Tampa Bay in the 7th round of the 2017 Draft, Walker has piled up accolades at the high school and collegiate levels

by Bryan Burns /

The Tampa Bay Lightning have done well in recent drafts mining gems out of the later rounds when there are few National Hockey League players to be found, Ondrej Palat being the most obvious example.

The Lightning selected Palat in the seventh and final round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft with the 208th overall pick, just three spots away from the last selection for that draft class. Three years later, Palat had put up the third-most points (59) by a rookie all-time in Lightning history and finished second in voting for the NHL's Calder Trophy given to the newcomer of the year in the league.

Palat remains a mainstay in the Lightning lineup and has been a key piece to their reaching at least the Eastern Conference Final three of the last five seasons and finishing last season as the Presidents' Trophy winner for the first time in franchise history.

The Lightning unearthed Cedric Paquette in the fourth round (101st overall) of the 2012 Draft, and he's been a starter ever since his first full season with Tampa Bay in 2014-15. Mathieu Joseph was taken in the fourth round (120th overall) of the 2015 Draft and forced his way onto the Lightning roster out of training camp this season.

Video: Sammy Walker on approach to Development Camp

The Bolts feel like they might have gotten another steal in Sammy Walker, their seventh-round selection (200th overall) from the 2017 Draft.

Walker's draft stock probably never got off the ground because of his size. When the Lightning took him, he was 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds.

Two years later, as the Lightning open their 2019 Development Camp, Walker's third camp with the Bolts, the 20 year old stands 5-foot-11 and is closing in on 6 feet.

"Hopefully a little more (growing to go)," he joked.

As far as the Lightning are concerned, Walker's growth, both on and off the ice, has been at just the right pace.

The season after being drafted, Walker led Edina High to a third-place finish at the MSHSL Class AA State Tournament and won the Minnesota's Mr. Hockey Award, joining other illustrious winners like Nick Leddy, Casey Mittelstadt, Nick Bjugstad and the Lightning's own Ryan McDonagh. The high school senior was also named the Star Tribune's Metro Player of the Year.

Last season Walker made the transition to collegiate hockey as a freshman for the University of Minnesota. In his second game, he scored his first goal. 

"The first couple games you're kind of nervous and then you settle in like, 'Okay, I can play at this level,'" Walker said. "You just go out there and you have fun with it. Luckily enough, I had a good year."

That's an understatement.

Walker netted 10 goals and recorded 26 points in 37 games for the Gophers, ranking tied for fourth on the team (and first among Big Ten rookies) for scoring and fifth for goals. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year - the first University of Minnesota player to earn the distinction - and was a unanimous Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection.

"That was a huge accomplishment," Walker said. "I was lucky enough to play with some great players that helped me have a successful year. Just being the first ever Gopher player to get that is a huge honor."

Fresh off that award-winning season, Walker returns to Tampa this week for his third Lightning Development Camp. Walker might have been overlooked during his first two camps, a product of his diminutive size combined with his late-pick draft selection.

But with accolades continuing to pile up, Walker has inserted himself into the conversation whenever the topic turns to the Lightning's top prospects.

Tweet from @TBLightning: Starting off this year���s #BoltsDevCamp with street hockey at the Jeff & Penny Vinik Family Boys & Girls Club at Winston Park!

"From the past two camps, you come and you try to learn as much as you can," he said. "They give you so many tools to bring back to your team during the season that you can work on and just my third camp, I'm comfortable here now and it's always fun. I'm happy to be back."

Walker scored nine goals on 16 shots during last season's development camp 3-on-3 tournament to lead all prospects for goals in the competition and his team to the tournament championship. He was a standout in his first development camp 3-on-3 tourney too.

Wherever he goes, it seems, success tends to follow Sammy Walker.

The Lightning are hoping that trend continues whenever Walker's ready to take the next step to the pro game.

"That jump to the professional level is a big jump," he said. "I'm just kind of working on it at (Minnesota), just keep developing my game and getting stronger. Hopefully one day I can make that jump."

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