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The Curious Case of Christian Wolanin

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He’s one of Ottawa’s better defencemen by most metrics, so why isn’t he playing?

Edmonton Oilers v Ottawa Senators Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

I could count on one hand, the number of Ottawa Senators (that are STILL Ottawa Senators) that have been impressive this season. Much of the team has struggled mightily, especially on the back end. Cody Ceci, Mark Borowiecki, and Ben Harpur have been maligned for their play, meanwhile Thomas Chabot was named to his first NHL All-Star Game, but has struggled of late.

It certainly seems like there’s a great divide in talent there, but a certain Sens youngster has stepped in to bridge the gap, and has emerged as a solid #3 blueliner this season.

In 19 games with the big club, Christian Wolanin has tallied three goals and four assists, while somehow maintaining a +3 rating on the worst defensive team in hockey. His possession metrics are solid as well, with only Thomas Chabot and Dylan DeMelo holding better CF% than him.

So why, then, has Christian Wolanin only suited up for 19 NHL games this season? Surely, there must be some reason, right? There must be someone playing better?

Well, no. There isn’t.

Wolanin is a left-shot defenceman, so let’s take a look at the other lefties that have been playing ahead of him. Thomas Chabot needs no explanation, he’s been incredible this season. Mark Borowiecki will never be pulled from the lineup, the team clearly values his physical presence and character more than the development of young prospects. That much has been established.

So what about Ben Harpur? The 24 year-old has suited up in 40 games this season, posting only two points, with his first NHL goal coming back in December. As has been said so many times, “you can’t teach big”, but there’s no reason to have Harpur above Wolanin. His defensive play is nowhere near good enough to justify his abysmal offensive numbers, and his possession stats (43.57 CF%) are the worst of any Ottawa defencemen. In terms of hits, he is seventh on the team, averaging 1.73 per game.

Boro, the team’s hits leader, averages around 4 per game. If the team is going to use Harpur’s size and supposed physicality to keep him in the lineup over Wolanin, they should have a look at the stats. Harpur’s a hell of a fighter, but the team might be better off with him in the box for five minutes.

Another left-shot d-man that got an extended look this season was rookie Maxime Lajoie. The youngster started hot, posting eight points in hist first NHL games. However, his play began to taper off after that, notching just seven points in his next 50 games, including a sixteen game stretch without finding the scoresheet.

In terms of possession metrics, Lajoie too leaves something to be desired. With a woeful 41.98 CF%, and a -25 rating, Lajoie’s struggles in the defensive zone were evident. His size hurt him, as he lost many a puck battle, with a whopping 48 giveaways. Of course, being partnered with Cody Ceci certainly didn’t help those numbers, but Lajoie was just not ready to make the full-time jump. The Senators brass have since admitted that the youngster was getting fatigued, and battling injuries.

Max Lajoie has the potential to be a really good offensive defenceman for the Senators, but he was rushed into a situation that he wasn’t ready for. Christian Wolanin has outplayed him in every sense, so again, why was he passed over for Lajoie?

It’s a question that those who follow the Sens have struggled to answer this season. Nobody is saying that Wolanin is on the level of Thomas Chabot, but he’s played well.

Dean Brown was on TSN1200 the other day, saying Wolanin hasn’t gotten playing time because his defensive play is not yet the calibre of an everyday NHLer. But if that’s true, what’s the logic for playing ANY of Ottawa’s defenders?

If Wolanin’s game isn’t NHL-ready, neither are the respective games of every other Ottawa defenceman, save Thomas Chabot and Dylan DeMelo.

So, what’s the reason? Honestly, who knows? Not much of the lineup decisions have made sense over the past couple years, and with things not appearing to change much under Marc Crawford, it appears the trajectory will stay the same.

An interesting note is that Crawford has been running the defence since he was hired, so it’s likely that the decision to keep Wolanin out has been his all along. He was quoted as telling the young defender to be more like his father. But, again, with defensive numbers better than most of the Ottawa blueliners, what more does he have to do?

For now, he has a locked-in spot due to Christian Jaros’ injury. But with the rest of this season a wash, and Ottawa looking to give the kids more icetime, it will be fascinating to see what becomes of Christian Wolanin upon Jaros’ return.