Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Could Christian Wolanin be the real deal for the Vancouver Canucks?
11 months ago
With fewer than 20 games left on the regular season and the playoffs functionally out of reach, it’s tempting to think that the Vancouver Canucks don’t have anything to play for anymore.
And, sure, that might be somewhat true on an overall, team-wide basis. But that doesn’t mean that the individuals who make up the team don’t have plenty to play for.
The Canucks roster is one caught up in a state of flux. That means that there are jobs to be earned and contracts to be won, both now and in the future. Phil di Giuseppe and Guillaume Brisebois just picked up two-year contract extensions, each at least partly based on the strength of their late-season call-ups.
This is the time of year when depth players can get noticed, and when they can get rewarded for drawing that notice. And on that front, there’s only one depth player who can’t help but make observers stop and say “Wo.”
We’re talking, of course, about Christian Wolanin.
At the age of 27, going on 28 later this week, Wolanin is a little bit old for a breakout campaign, and yet that’s exactly what he’s having.
The Canucks signed Wolanin to a one-year, two-way, $750K/350K UFA contract this past summer, and it’s hard to say they haven’t got their money’s worth. Wolanin made a statement right from the get-go in Training Camp, and by the measure of many, came in and stole a job with a strong preseason performance. But the Vancouver blueline was already overloaded at that point, and so Wolanin was sent down to Abbotsford, where he proceeded to put up an astonishing six goals and 49 assists in 49 games. At the time of this writing, Wolanin is still tied for ninth in overall AHL scoring, and is the only defender in the top-15.
This, despite Wolanin having been called up to Vancouver since late February. Since the recall, he’s managed ten NHL games. With two assists in that time, Wolanin isn’t exactly tearing up the big leagues the same way he did in the minors, but he has put in enough of a run of steady, two-way play that many are asking themselves: could Wolanin actually be some sort of a “real deal?” And could he be at least a short-term fixture on a Vancouver blueline that is desperate for some more “found money?”
Drafted 107th overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2015, Wolanin didn’t start out as a premium prospect. But he worked his way up, and by the time he was ready to bust onto the Ottawa roster, he was considered a top-ten prospect in a fairly deep rebuilding organization.
Unfortunately, a number of ill-timed injuries prevented Wolanin from cracking the 60-game mark with the Senators over four seasons, and he was surpassed by younger and more exciting prospects.
Wolanin was flipped to the LA Kings two years ago, and once again, he found himself struggling to make a name for himself on an overstuffed defensive depth chart. When he hit waivers the following October, he was scooped up by the Buffalo Sabres, but only managed a single game for them before winding up back on waivers and back in the hands of the LA Kings.
Wolanin would finish out the year for the Ontario Reign, posting 18 points in 37 games.
So, on the one hand, it’s fair to say that Wolanin has suffered from a bit of bad luck and a touch of lack of opportunity thus far in his NHL career. On the other hand, it’s also fair to say that Wolanin simply hasn’t ever played as well before as he is right now. Not at the AHL level, and certainly not at the NHL.
So, what’s changed? And is it the kind of change that the Canucks can count on being semi-permanent?
At 27, Wolanin is a bit old to still be considered “developing,” but he’s also hitting what should be about his statistical peak. Lots of defenders have their best seasons ever at the age of 27, so Wolanin isn’t a total anomaly in that regard.
As for genuinely “breaking out” this late in the game? It’s not exactly a common occurrence, but it happens. Check out Jake Walman in Detroit. He’s 27, too, and coming into this season, he had a grand total of 66 NHL games to his name, or about the same as Wolanin. But Walman’s been playing fantastic for the Red Wings all season, and he just signed a three-year, $3.4 million extension for his troubles. GM Steve Yzerman seems to think that Walman’s late-20s breakout is a legitimate one.
And, sure, Walman has a full season’s worth of excellent play backing him up, which Wolanin does not. But then there are plenty of other case studies, too. The key here is that it’s at the very least possible that Wolanin could maintain his current level of play from here on out, for at least a little while.
Look, the reality is that most NHL careers, if they happen at all, are quite short. Any player who makes it for a single season has already beaten the odds, and they’re running on borrowed time for every additional season thereafter.
The odds are decidedly against Wolanin having a lengthy NHL career. Breaking out now does not mean that he will remain broken out for the next decade, or even half-decade. But if the Canucks can get a couple of seasons worth of serviceable play out of Wolanin, that’s a pretty remarkable outcome for what looked to be a throwaway depth signing for the farm.
So, how likely is that?
All we’ve established so far is that it’s possible. Wolanin’s exceptional run of success in the AHL is impressive, but plenty have put up similar numbers at that level and failed to translate them to the big leagues. Remember Marc-Andre Gragnani?
Fortunately, there’s a little bit more to go on when it comes to believing in Wolanin. Through ten games for the Canucks, his underlying numbers have been very encouraging, with exceedingly-positive results in categories like Corsi, shot control, and control of scoring chances.
As an AHL call-up, Wolanin’s minutes have been sheltered, but no more than is usual. He’s still playing against legitimate NHL competition, and he’s controlling 61.11% of the high-danger chances.
This isn’t exactly new, either. In eight NHL games for the Kings last year, Wolanin’s HDCF was 60.71%.
Clearly, Wolanin is a player who adjusts and adapts his game to the NHL level. Which is, ultimately, for the better. He’s not going to be an assist-per-game player in the big leagues. All he can realistically hope to be is a bottom-pairing defender with strong two-way sensibilities and some serious two-way pop, and that’s exactly what he’s been for the Canucks thus far.
The Abbotsford superstar is still there, for those looking. Wolanin has been active off the point, and he’s cruised in from the left-side of the ice to the net-front in his trademark fashion on a couple of occasions. But overall, he’s doing more of a quiet things, the things that are harder for anyone other than the statistical analysts to pick up. The kinds of things that Wolanin needs to do to maintain an NHL paycheque for at least a little while longer.
Here, the “real deal” means Wolanin sticking around for a season or two, and crossing the 200 career game threshold. It’s an accomplishment that once seemed out of reach for him, but suddenly looks possible once again, so long as he can just maintain what he’s showing right now.
So far, so good, and that’s all we can really say until we’ve seen more.
Speaking of NHL paycheques, it’s worth noting that Wolanin is an unrestricted free agent after this season. What might it take for the Canucks to keep him in the fold?
Don’t worry. We’re not about to suggest a contract anywhere approaching the one just handed to Jake Walman.
We think that Wolanin will be looking for something somewhat similar to what Brisebois and di Giuseppe just received — a little bit of term, and a guarantee of a high minor league salary, if not an outright one-way deal.
That shouldn’t be too much for the franchise to muster up financially.
But equally key to retaining Wolanin’s services will be opportunity. Despite his excellent Training Camp performance this season, Wolanin didn’t really have much a realistic path to making the team from the get-go. Chances are good that he’ll want to see more of a spot open for himself for 2023/24 as he considers his options. After going point-per-game in the AHL this year, someone is going to make a space available for him. At this rate, it might as well be the Canucks.
Wolanin is still going to have to fight for that spot. This late into his career, he’s probably made peace with the fact that he’ll always have to fight for his spot. But what he’s proven in 2022/23 is that, when given the shot, he can indeed perform like an NHL defender.
When it comes to the Vancouver Canucks blueline, that might be a low bar.
But it’s one that Wolanin has cleared, and it raises the question as to what other bars he might be able to clear in the near future.
Recent articles from Stephan Roget