Everyone knew that Ryan Walters was a top talent, but he broke out in 2012-13.
In his junior season, the UNO winger more than doubled the production of his sophomore year, going from solid threat to second-team All-American.
He’s one of only four Hobey Baker Award finalists returning to play college hockey this season.
So what did Walters do in the offseason? He went back to work.
Three times a week, back home in Minnesota, Walters worked with a power-skating trainer.
“I know my strengths, but you can’t just improve what you’re already good at,” Walters said. “I knew I needed to work on my skating. I needed to get faster. That’s what I’ve been hearing from a lot of people. So instead of just blowing it off, I took it to heart and worked at it to get my game to the next level.”
And why not? It worked wonders last year.
The focus last summer was lengthening his stride and having a lower knee bend for quicker starts and push-offs. This time around it was transition — getting from Point A to Point B faster.
“I could tell the difference last year,” Walters said. “I might have been a step or a step and a half faster. And it allowed me, in one-on-ones or odd-man rushes, to get that extra step.
“It gives you more time to make plays or to even just beat a guy to the net yourself. … It really helped me become the player I wanted to become.”
Walters had 11 goals and 12 assists as a UNO freshman, and then posted nearly identical numbers — 10 goals and 15 assists — as a sophomore.
But the 6-foot, 190-pounder from Rosemount, Minn., was a force last season while collecting 22 goals and 30 assists, tying for second nationally with 52 points, while tying for fifth in goals and eighth in assists.
“I think last year he surprised a lot of people,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “Sometimes you maybe wouldn’t notice him much until the end of the game and you look at the scoresheet and he’s got a goal and an assist. This year, we want him to be noticeable — and he’s going to draw a lot of attention.
“When we’re on the road (because the home team gets the last change), he’s going to be out there against the two best defensemen and the three best defensive forwards — and he’s going to have to play through the things that Terry Broadhurst had to play through (in 2011-12).”
Blais said Walters is a stronger, more powerful player than the speedy Broadhurst, who skated 20 pounds lighter than Walters. During Walters’ sophomore year, Broadhurst had 14 goals in the first 15 games but only two in the final 23 (though he had 13 of his 20 assists down the stretch).
“I think he can overcome any shadowing that any other team is going to do,” Blais said. “Attitude and everything else … he appears ready to go and in great shape.”
North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said Walters saw some of that shadowing anyway while tying two-time Hobey Baker finalist Scott Parse (2006-07) for the second-most points in a season by a UNO player (Parse holds the record, too, with 61 in 2005-06). Walters also matched David Brisson with the fourth-best single-season goal total and tied Parse and two others for the second-best assist total.
“I think teams were focused on him last year,” said Hakstol, against whom Walters had a goal and an assist in two games. “He didn’t sneak up on anybody. Everyone knew who he was and what he brought to the table. He’s over that hurdle.
“And he doesn’t necessarily need to have better stats to have a more complete year. He’s going to be a leader on their team, and he’s going to be a guy who, when we play against them, we’re going to have to pay a lot of attention to him.”
Most of Walters’ damage last year came after a relatively slow start. He had no goals and three assists through seven games, then had all 22 of his goals and all but three assists for 49 points in his final 32.
“He shoots the puck very well,” said Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, against whom Walters had two goals and four assists in four games. “And having the year like he did — that instills a lot of confidence in a player. He’s going to get the opportunities to put up the same or better numbers.”
Walters is already the 13th career 100-point scorer in Mav history. He’s tied for 10th with 43 career goals and 11th with 57 career assists. He’s carrying the school’s best-ever career plus/minus rating of plus-40.
Blais said he anticipates once again frequently having Walters on the same line with Josh Archibald, centered by Dominic Zombo — potentially one of the highest-scoring lines in the country.
Whomever he’s skating with, Walters said, will make things easier.
“I’m sure teams may be trying to key on me, but there are other guys on our team who can make plays,” Walters said. “That’ll open them up — and I’m sure they’ll be watched just as much as me.
“I can’t let it get to me. I still have to play my game. I’m not going to change my style of play because someone is playing defense on me. You’ve still got to move your feet and be confident with the puck. That’s what I plan on trying to do.”
If he does it like he did last year, then Hobey Baker Award talk will start circulating again. Walters, Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau and St. Lawrence’s Greg Carey are the only 50-point scorers returning from last season and represent 75 percent of the returning group of Hobey Baker Award finalists.
“It’s not only about stats,” Walters said. “As a senior, I want to be a leader for some of the younger guys, show them the ropes on and off the ice.”
Right now, Walters said he’s thinking more about the Oct. 7 exhibition opener against the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
“It was a great experience and a tremendous honor to be up for that award,” Walters said. “But this is a new year. I can’t live off last year — neither can the team.”