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Carchidi Column: Unsung Defensemen Sparking Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers
Sean Walker (center) and Nick Seeler (right) have been a defensive revelation for the surprising Flyers. They have anchored the No. 2 pairing. Photo: AP.

Despite losing to Nashville on Thursday, the rebuilding Philadelphia Flyers are one of the NHL’s feel-good stories. They have points in nine of their last 10 games, sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division, and are allowing just 2.66 goals per game — sixth in the 32-team NHL.

Quietly, the Flyers’ second defensive pairing has played a major role in the team’s stunning 18-11-3 start.

One of the defenders on that pairing, Nick Seeler, was so disenchanted when the Chicago Blackhawks sent him to the minors three years ago that he left hockey and contemplated another occupation.

Seeler’s partner with the Flyers, Sean Walker, was coming off a disappointing season with Los Angeles and was considered a “throw-in” in the three-way, offseason deal that sent Ivan Provorov to Columbus.

And, yet, 32 games into this wacky season, Seeler, a No. 6 or No. 7 defenseman during most of his NHL life, and Walker are not just considered serviceable, but they are thriving on a defense that is has played beyond expectations.

Way beyond.

“They’ve been a good, solid pair,” coach-of-the-year candidate John Tortorella said before the Flyers lost to Nashville by a deceiving 4-2 score. The game that was tied with about four minutes left. “They’ve played well together and played some big minutes against some top players — in a position we felt there was going to be some growing pains, which I still think there’s going to be.”

But he admitted to “not realizing what ‘Walks’ is,” and that his steadiness, along with Seeler’s strides in his game, “has been a big part in us staying competitive.”

Impressive duo

Seeler leads the team in blocked shots (81) and with plus-15 plus-minus rating, and he tops the Philadelphia Flyers’ defensemen with 44 hits. Walker has provided surprising offense (11 points, two shorthanded goals) while averaging 20:46 per game, and, like Seeler, has played steady defense. As a result, they are among the Flyers’ top four defenders on a team that has been consistently outworking its opponents.

Since becoming a pair last month, Seeler and Walker forged a quick chemistry.

“It just kind of developed fast. I think we’re on the same page,” Walker said.

Seeler is more of a stay-at-home defenseman, while Walker is prone to take more offensive chances. They are a combined plus-23.

“Our games complement each other pretty well,” Seeler said.

The core of their focus, they both said, is the defensive aspect of their game.

“We both try to be aggressive, try to shut things down as fast as we can,” Walker said.  “Both of us have the same mentality when we’re out there — be strong defensively first, and then contribute offensively if we can. We get along really well off the ice, and get along on the ice, and it’s been working out really well.”

Does some soul-searching

Seeler, 30, sat out the 2020-21 season in an effort to “find myself.”

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” Seeler said about whether hockey would be part of his future. “I knew I needed to step away. I think I just needed a mental and physical break.”

He paused.

“I didn’t know if that meant a different career path, or getting back into it,” Seeler added. “At the time, I didn’t have any plans to get back into it.”

He spent time toiling at his dad’s paint distribution workplace. A few months later, “the passion came back” for hockey. “I got fired up and wanted to go back.

“I just needed a reset,” he said.

His agent phoned Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher, who had Seeler when he was the Minnesota Wild’s GM. Fletcher signed him to a one-year deal, and Seeler played sparingly in his first season with the Orange and Black. The Minnesota native then established himself as a quality defender last year, playing in 70 games for Tortorella, then the Flyers’ new coach.

Walker’s return to health

Walker, 29, played in just six games with the Kings in 2021-22, a season shortened because he tore his ACL and MCL. He played in 70 games last year, but wasn’t back to his old self.

Now he is totally healthy. And it shows.

“I’m playing a lot more minutes this year,” he said. “Just getting the opportunity to play and go out there and build my confidence. I think I’ve always had the offensive upside, and playing a lot of minutes has made me feel really confident with my D-zone play.”

Walker and Seeler know their names will be mentioned at the trade deadline because they are on expiring contracts. Right now, they don’t want to think about that. Their attention is on making the Flyers continue to be one of the NHL’s most surprising success stories.

“The confidence in this group is rising by the day,” Seeler said. “Structure-wise, I think we’ve been vey solid. Guys are buying in and I think a lot of that has to do with our structure and having our forwards come back and blocking shots. That’s a big part of our game.

“It’s just fun to come to the rink every day,” Seeler added. ” I know it’s a cliche, but it’s been a really fun year with this group. We have a really tight group, and I think Torts has a lot to do with that.”

A tight, hard-working group and a tight defense. For the suddenly relevant Flyers, it’s been a winning combination.

Sam Carchidi writes a weekly column for Philly Hockey Now. He and Jeff Hare are working on a TV series on the Flyers’ glory days, tentatively called Bullies: A Love Story. Carchidi can be reached at samcarchidi55@gmail.com.

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