American Hockey League

Wolanin thankful for AHL time during revival season

📝 by Patrick Williams

Not much left for Christian Wolanin to do this season, other than to go pursue a Calder Cup.

After all, the Abbotsford Canucks standout already has won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman; revived his National Hockey League chances with the Vancouver Canucks; and scored himself a new two-year contract with the organization.

Now Wolanin is back in Abbotsford to eat minutes and revive a power play that sagged after his February promotion to Vancouver. Wolanin took on his customary heavy workload and helped the AHL Canucks to a sweep of their best-of-three opening-round series against Bakersfield.

Wolanin led all AHL defensemen with 55 points (six goals, 49 assists) in only 49 games during the regular season. With Wolanin running their power play, the Canucks were 13th in the league at 20 percent (43-for-215) when he was recalled to Vancouver on Feb. 15. From that point onward, the Abbotsford power play was only 9-for-73 (12.3 percent) and eventually fell to a 22nd-place finish.

While Wolanin was with Vancouver, he quickly re-established himself at the NHL level. After having only played a combined 30 NHL games across three different teams in the past three seasons, Wolanin played 16 games for Vancouver, posting three assists and an average ice time of 15:45 per game.

However, If Wolanin’s success made this season look easy for him, his path to this point has been anything but.

“One thing that I think I can relate to with most guys in the American League is that I’ve had a lot of adversity in my career,” Wolanin said.

The son of former NHL blueliner Craig Wolanin, Christian played 10 NHL games with the Ottawa Senators in 2018 after completing his junior season at the University of North Dakota, then played 30 games for Ottawa in his rookie pro season in 2018-19 while earning a trip to the AHL All-Star Classic with Belleville. But Wolanin sustained a shoulder injury before training camp the following fall and missed most of the 2019-20 campaign, playing just three games with Ottawa and nine more for Belleville in the AHL.

A season later, he played 18 games in the NHL between Ottawa and Los Angeles, who acquired him in a trade on Mar. 29, 2021, and three in the AHL between Belleville and Ontario. Last season hardly went any better: Buffalo claimed Wolanin off waivers in the first week of the regular season, but he logged just one game with the Sabres before Los Angeles claimed him back. He eventually spent most of the second half with Ontario and had 18 points (one goal, 17 assists) in 37 games.

At 27, Wolanin clearly needed a fresh start. He found it on the second day of free agency last summer, when Vancouver scooped him up on a one-year contract. He came to Abbotsford after a strong NHL training camp with something to prove.

With Jeremy Colliton coming in as the Canucks’ new AHL head coach this season, Wolanin quickly clicked with his new organization. He came to Abbotsford in the right frame of mind, and when he continued to perform at the AHL level, Vancouver management responded accordingly and gave him an extended opportunity in the NHL.

“For guys in my shoes, I think you never know what somebody’s path was to get to this point,” Wolanin said. “You never know whether it was an injury, or inconsistent play, or both.

“You can kind of handle it one of two ways,” Wolanin said. “You can shut down and point fingers, or take a look in the mirror.”

Before his promotion to Vancouver, Wolanin saw considerable time in a pairing with Brady Keeper, with whom he was able to bond over their shared injury troubles: Keeper missed all of last season with a broken left leg. Wolanin passed along some of those hard-earned lessons to his defense partner.

“Looking back,” Wolanin said of his injury, “I think that it was a good learning experience in terms of how you have to approach it. When you take a lot of time off, there’s not really any time to get back into it. It’s kind of a ‘now’ thing, and one thing that I tried to help Brady with was getting back into it immediately.

“I thought that the more that he played, the more consistently he played, the better he got individually, and then the more we played together, the better we got as a unit.”

Keeper also missed nearly three months of time this season with an injury before a mid-March return. And with Vancouver missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Noah Juulsen and Jack Rathbone have returned to the Abbotsford blue line as well. Add in 2018 second-round draft pick Jett Woo; trade-deadline acquisition Zach Giuttari; and former first-rounder Filip Johansson, who joined the Canucks following the completion of his Swedish Hockey League season with Frolunda, and this is a standout defensive corps.

It will need to be, too. The Canucks’ opponent in the Pacific Division semifinal will be either Calgary or Colorado, and the path through the Western Conference playoff draw will be a treacherous one for any team. With Wolanin helping to lead the way, Abbotsford will be a difficult obstacle for any opponent.

“It’s a good spot to come and try to find confidence again and find your game again,” Wolanin said of the AHL. “All it takes is one coach or one GM to believe in you, and I think the American League is a good spot to be until that happens.

“I’m more than thankful for this past year in the American League.”

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