Healthy Fix-Wolansky doing what it takes to reach NHL

Photo: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

📝 by Patrick Williams

Trey Fix-Wolansky paused for more than a few seconds to consider the question at the end of a long weekend.

Why is consistency so difficult to master for young prospects?

After all, everyone is clear on what a particular player needs to do to get a National Hockey League opportunity. Both the AHL coaching staff and the NHL organization are on the same page. Fix-Wolansky is as savvy as any young prospect out there. He has heard the message and absorbed it. He knows.

The Cleveland Monsters forward is third in the AHL in points per game (1.47) with 25 points in 17 contests. A torrid stretch of 14 points in four games during mid-November earned him a two-week recall to the Columbus Blue Jackets — and a frame of reference for the question.

“I think just,” Fix-Wolansky began before that long pause, “knowing every night if you’re not feeling great that you [still] have to play that consistent way.

“You’ve got to show up, and you’ve got to do something to help the team win. Say you’re not scoring; you’ve got to play with energy and play physical, and that’s something that I need to continue to work on to get back up to that next level.”

But taking that NHL opportunity and converting it to a full-time job? That is the real test, and there are no easy answers. The schedule, be it in the NHL or AHL, is relentless. Finding a way to contribute, especially with limited minutes at times with the NHL club, is much easier said than done. NHL organizations invest millions of dollars looking for any small edge possible to help prospects find that sometimes-elusive consistency.

Fix-Wolansky’s takeaway from his stint in Columbus?

“I think you’ve got to be consistent every single night,” he said. “You can’t stray away from your game. You play the right way, then teams are going to want you in the NHL. That’s the most important thing.”

Fix-Wolansky and his Monsters teammates had just been through the quintessential AHL three-in-three road grind that brought a little bit of everything to this young club. It started with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton routing the Monsters on Friday, 8-1. Then came a 3-2 loss to league-leading Hershey the next night. And the Sunday rematch with the Bears was not looking all that great, either, with Cleveland down 5-1 early in the second period. But the visitors pushed and pushed, netting four unanswered goals to tie the game before winning it in the shootout, 6-5.

The 5-foot-7, 186-pound Fix-Wolansky had another one of his typically strong outings, contributing two assists and a shootout tally while irritating Hershey regularly at the end of a long weekend for all parties.

He looked every bit the player pushing for another NHL recall.

The consistency question does not have a singular answer. Every player’s development path is different and contains its own wrinkles. Ask 32 AHL head coaches, and there will be a wide range of replies. But Monsters head coach Trent Vogelhuber provided his own theory as to the challenge players face.

“It’s habits,” said Vogelhuber, who is only four years removed from his own playing career as a reliable, workmanlike AHL forward. “It’s a lifetime of habits.”

Of Fix-Wolansky, Vogelhuber said, “I feel like he’s turning a corner, but [old habits are] still there. It still comes up, and he knows. But it’s been ingrained in him, some of those habits, you can call them junior habits or whatever. And it’s gotten him to where he’s been with an NHL contract, so it’s hard to recognize.”

Photo: Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

So, if this is a prove-it season for Fix-Wolansky — Columbus re-signed the 23-year-old to a one-year, two-way deal this past July — then he is doing exactly that, chipping away at breaking those habits that once worked for him but are no longer needed as a pro. He possesses considerable offensive creativity and an excellent eye for threading passes through tight lanes, he can compete against larger defenders, and he invested considerable time last summer on his skating work.

That stretch just before his NHL recall last month included four-point games in Rochester on Nov. 11 and Belleville on Nov. 16, followed by a two-goal, three-assist outing in a 7-3 win at Laval on Nov. 18. He scored again for the Monsters on Nov. 19 before traveling to Columbus and playing 12:08 for the Blue Jackets in a 5-3 victory against Florida on Nov. 20.

It’s the fruit from what has been a long process for Fix-Wolansky and the Blue Jackets.

Columbus took the Edmonton native as a seventh-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. He was a star for his hometown junior team, the Oil Kings, serving as team captain in 2018-19 and tying for fourth in the Western Hockey League in scoring with 102 points.

He made his pro debut during the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs, then began his rookie season with only two goals in his first 20 games. But he stuck with it and eventually tied for the Monsters team lead with 12 goals in 43 total games. His second pro season had started off well enough with nine points (four goals, five assists) in nine contests, but he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in a March 20, 2021, game against Grand Rapids, ending his season and keeping him out of game action until November.

He made up for that lost time in 2021-22, playing his first six games for the Blue Jackets while also picking up 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) in 53 appearances for Cleveland.

Back healthy, Fix-Wolansky has been getting plenty of work to make up for that time lost to injury. Lineup consistency has been elusive for the Monsters, who have dealt with a steady flow of players moving up and down I-71 between Columbus and Cleveland. Vogelhuber used Fix-Wolansky on his top line this past weekend.

“I don’t want Trey Fix-Wolansky to be a good American League player,” Vogelhuber elaborated. “I’m trying to get him to break through into the NHL. So in order to do that, he’s got to do more than just score goals on the power play and coming down the wing, and he understands that now. And so he’s putting in the work, and he’s really maturing that way.”

Everyone is on the same page on making Fix-Wolansky a fixture in the Columbus lineup. He’s close. With the Blue Jackets off to a 10-16-2 start and last in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, there will be opportunities, and anyone able to contribute will be more than welcome.

“I think it was all right,” Fix-Wolansky said of his time with Columbus. “Getting four games is nice, but obviously I want to be a full-time NHLer, so I’m going to do whatever it takes down here to get myself back up there.

“And once I get there, do whatever it takes to stay there.”