Walters’ biggest impact? Nebraska-Omaha forward ‘gets the job done’

On a Nebraska-Omaha team tied with Canisius for having the tallest average height in Division I hockey, it isn’t the 6-foot Ryan Walters’ tallness that makes him stand out.

It isn’t his flair as a player, either. In a league featuring goal-scoring dynamos like North Dakota’s Danny Kristo, Wisconsin’s Michael Mersch and Minnesota State’s Eriah Hayes, Walters’ isn’t always the first name that springs to national college hockey pundits’ minds.

Instead, what has set the UNO junior forward apart this season has been his intelligence as a hockey player and a new training regimen that has helped him transform into the Mavericks’ first serious Hobey Baker Award candidate since Scott Parse in both 2005-06 and 2006-07.

“I don’t think casual fans would notice Ryan Walters,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “He’s not the sort of flashy player like some we have now and have had, but Walt gets the job done.

“He’s got a lot of hockey sense, he’s strong and he’s always had a pretty good shot, but he’s been more consistent this season in his day-to-day work ethic on the ice.”

“I just put my focus on the team, and I’ve told everybody that even though everybody says the Hobey Baker is an individual award, I like to classify it as more of a team award. If the team’s not winning, you’re not going to win the award, so I give a lot of credit to my teammates in helping me this season.”

— Ryan Walters

An undrafted 21-year-old, Walters has become one of college hockey’s best NHL free agent prospects this season, nearly doubling his offensive output from the 2011-12 campaign. Having posted 10 goals and 15 assists in 38 games as a sophomore, his 21 goals and 28 assists this season have him one ahead of St. Lawrence’s Greg Carey as Division I’s points leader with 49.

UNO’s strength and conditioning program worked with Walters in his first two seasons in Omaha to bulk up the now-196-pound Rosemount, Minn., native. Things changed last summer for the better, though, when Walters switched his training focus from strength to agility.

He continued to lift weights to add more muscle to his frame, but between new workouts at UNO and help from Twin Cities-area skating coach Jesse Sampair, Walters has become a much more dynamic player within UNO’s system.

“In my freshman and sophomore year, we were doing a lot of heavy lifting and heavy squats and things like that,” Walters said. “But this year they’ve really had me focus on agility, quickness, light weight and quick reps.

“That’s helped my speed a little bit this year, and I got to go home for a couple weeks and got a skating coach who’s helped me to even out my stride on both legs, and that was the difference for me in my training this past summer.”

Walters’ hockey IQ and skill set were always sufficient — there’s a reason he’s been left out of only five of UNO’s games in his nearly three years on the team — but the tweaks to his game this season have taken him to dizzying heights by the Mavericks’ standards.

“I think he had a good summer, one of the best of any of our guys that we had returning,” Blais said about the alterations to Walters’ offseason regimen. “He worked out and trimmed his body and obviously gained some muscle, and he’s always had the [on-ice] skill, but he’s been really more consistent this season.

“He’s been better defensively all over the ice and playing a more honest game, and he’s been working for the offensive contributions he’s making.”

Blais said he thinks Walters has also matured mentally, although the intelligence was always there.

“He’s always been a good student, too, and even had good grades back when he was [in high school in Minnesota] at St. Thomas Academy, and he’s a 3.0 student here every semester,” Blais said.

“I think that’s the one thing that also carries over into his game: He’s a smart player, and a lot of the time you find players’ smarts in the classroom not equating to being smart on the ice, but, in Ryan’s case, he is.”

Since UNO launched its hockey program in 1997, only two Mavericks players — Parse twice and Bill Thomas in 2005-06 — have ever reached the 50-point plateau in a single season. Walters is on pace to join them, and could do it this weekend when the Mavericks visit Minnesota-Duluth for the final weekend of WCHA regular season play.

Walters was more modest than Blais in assessing his game this season compared to his last two in Omaha. He does, however, relish the leadership role he has started to step into as one of the team’s upperclassmen.

“I don’t think I’m really a different player this year compared to last,” Walters said.

“We had a lot of good upperclassmen players in my freshman and sophomore years that were the leaders then, but now it’s our opportunity to take their roles, and I’ve gained some confidence just in being one of the older guys, and the style of my play has really fallen into place this year.”

Walters also has done his best to keep the Hobey buzz surrounding him from becoming a distraction by avoiding UNO’s fans’ Internet message board and anywhere else that might be building him up for national honors.

“I just try not to go onto the Internet and other places where I could look at stuff like that,” Walters said. “I never go on those sites and Mavpuck and places like that.

“I just put my focus on the team, and I’ve told everybody that even though everybody says the Hobey Baker is an individual award, I like to classify it as more of a team award. If the team’s not winning, you’re not going to win the award, so I give a lot of credit to my teammates in helping me this season.”

The Mavericks entered the final week of the regular season tied for 25th place in the PairWise Rankings, which might serve as a red flag for Hobey Baker voters who haven’t seen much of Walters this season. He is, however, perhaps the biggest reason UNO (18-14-2, 14-10-2 WCHA) is on pace to record 20 wins one season removed from an underwhelming 14-18-6 season.

Although UNO also has three other players that have reached 30 points this season, Blais said he felt that Walters has been the only reliable high-powered weapon UNO’s had at certain stages, and that should warrant consideration for Walters for the award for Division I’s top player.

“There have been times that Ryan’s been the only thing that we’ve had,” Blais said. “You look at [North Dakota] with Corban Knight, Rocco Grimaldi and some of their others scoring for them, but Walters has been the difference in a lot of our games.

“I think he’s one of the top 10 players in the country, but whether he’s the best or not, there’s still a lot of hockey to be played, and he’s got to prove that he is the best and is worthy of winning the Hobey Baker.”