Saturday brought some news of a depth roster transaction for the Columbus Blue Jackets, with the return of top-12 forward Justin Danforth from the injured reserve. In return, Trey Fix-Wolansky was the soldier sent to the squad’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Cleveland, over Brendan Gaunce. Fix-Wolansky’s first NHL stint was brief. So brief, that if you blinked, you might have missed it.
My counterpart and The Hockey Writers‘ Blue Jackets insider, Mark Schieg and I had a brief discussion about his first few games in the recent Union Junction podcast. We both agreed, he’s got the potential to stand out in a depth role. Much more so than a player like perpetual will-he-won’t-he Emil Bemstrom.
“He just plays the game, and that’s the thing,” Schieg said. “Fix-Wolansky goes into the lineup – scores a goal and an assist in his first couple of games – and he just seems like he fits. And it’s almost like he has that ‘it factor’ to him. He’s been questioned his whole career about being short – ‘can he play?’ He just keeps doing what he does.”
Whether the demotion was warranted or not is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is the notion that Fix-Wolansky will be back in the NHL at some point. One thing is clear, it would not be wise to bet against Fix-Wolansky, who has defied the odds his entire career.
Who Is Fix-Wolansky?
Fix-Wolansky has broken through adversity at every level of competition. This accompanies so many players of diminutive stature in the game of hockey. His 5-foot-7 height ties him for the title of second shortest player to play in the league this year – with good company in Chicago Blackhawks star Alex Debrincat and Montreal Canadiens rookie Cole Caufield.
Regardless of the doubters, across a three-year span, Fix-Wolansky went from being undrafted in the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Bantam Draft to captaining his hometown Edmonton Oil Kings to the Conference Finals.
Despite a 54-point rookie campaign in the WHL, leading up to his first year of NHL Draft eligibility, he went unranked and undrafted. In his draft-plus-one year, he finished 18th in league scoring with 89 points through 71 games, outscoring his next teammate by 27 points. Even then, he slipped to the Blue Jackets at 204th overall.
Following his Conference Finals run with the Oil Kings, Fix-Wolansky joined the Cleveland Monsters in their AHL playoff push, scoring a goal and an assist in three appearances. The following year, 2019-20, was his first chance to play a full season in the pro-ranks.
Adding to the adversity, Fix-Wolansky’s young career has been riddled with injuries. Starting with a groin injury that sidelined him for a couple of months during that first AHL campaign. He battled back, starting strong in his second season with the Monsters. He put up nine points through nine games before disaster struck again. A torn ACL knocked him out for the rest of the season.
“I felt like I was more comfortable on the ice. It felt like I kind of controlled the game the way I wanted to and played the way I wanted to and just let all the outside noise go away, but it was a really good step. Then nine games in we had the setback, so it’s time to ramp it back up again and take another step here.” Fix-Wolansky said on his road to recovery heading into the 2021-22 season.
A torn ACL has been known to end careers, yet Fix-Wolansky rehabbed and returned to the lineup in 2021-22. Another strong showing over a larger sample size, he posted 17 points through his first 22 games of action. Then, the injury bug did him a favour this time, doing some damage to a few players on the Blue Jackets’ squad and opening up a roster spot for him.
Despite his injury history, Fix-Wolansky didn’t shy away from contact in his first call-up. He brought a feisty attitude to the ice in limited fourth-line minutes. He potted a goal in his first game and added an assist in his second. He went cold in his last three appearances but showed he could produce in the world’s premier league. He’s shown a pattern of needing a season to acclimatize to new surroundings before kicking into high gear in both the WHL and AHL in the past. Who’s to say he won’t do the same in the NHL?
Granted, I don’t think anyone believes he will be a 100-point scorer at the NHL level. Though, a consistent 20-30 point scorer isn’t out of the question if he follows his trajectory and breaks through at that top level.
When Could Fix-Wolansky Be Back in Columbus?
While nothing is 100-percent set in stone, at 22 years old and after performing well in a depth role for this Blue Jackets squad in his first call-up, Fix-Wolansky will eventually add more games to his career total. The question is when?
Mostly, that will depend on the Blue Jackets’ moves at the trade deadline this March. Specifically on how much space is cleared out of the forward corps. With the trade of Patrik Laine looking less and less likely – forwards who could be on the move include the highly publicized Max Domi and Jack Roslovic instead. Maybe add in a sneaky trade of Gus Nyquist and some other depth players like Danforth – there could be significant space opening up in the currently crowded forward group.
The obstacles to Fix-Wolansky’s path back to the NHL don’t stop there. His appearances on the scoresheet didn’t seem to warrant a tangible amount of trust from head coach Brad Larsen. In the final game of his call-up, Larsen only let him touch the ice for five shifts and 3:07 minutes of ice time and he ended up only averaging 6:39 across his total time with the team.
Regardless of the obstacles, Fix-Wolansky has built a resume of overcoming adversity and thriving in his young professional career. I wouldn’t bet against him pushing through once again at the game’s highest level when all is said and done.
Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.