Four games into his rookie season of pro hockey last year, Trey Fix-Wolansky was exactly where he didn't want to be - on the shelf.
A groin injury would end up costing him about two months of playing time, so one of Fix-Wolansky's goals coming into this season was to avoid a similar situation this time around.
He had 11 months to get ready, too. When the AHL season shut down in March of last year, the high-scoring CBJ draft pick went until this February, when the Cleveland Monsters season began, without playing in games other than 4-on-4 summer skates he participated in around his native Edmonton with NHL, AHL and college players.
That gave Fix-Wolansky plenty of time to hit the gym, and he did just that. He came to camp this year in what he calls "NHL shape," and the results have been impressive. Through six games this season with Cleveland, the 21-year-old forward has four goals and three assists to tie for the Monsters lead with seven points.
"I feel like my conditioning on the ice is better," said Fix-Wolansky, a seventh-round pick of the team in the 2018 draft. "I feel like I'm stronger on the puck. I'm winning more battles out of the corner, just being able to stand on my feet better. That helps a lot. I think if you're playing the game on your knees or your (backside), you're not touching the puck much. Being able to stand on my feet and not get knocked over by bigger guys, that's huge.
"And just working on core stability -- I think that's a thing that's taking over the NHL right now is not really lifting huge, heavy weights but working on agility and quickness and core stability."
At just 5-foot-7, being in tip-top shape will be a key for Fix-Wolansky as he hopes to get to the next level, but his offensive bona fides have rarely been questioned, as he showed both a lethal shot and creative play-making skills in his last two seasons with the hometown Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL. Fix-Wolansky notched a 32-57-89 line the year before being drafted by Columbus then was even better in 2018-19, totaling 37 goals and 102 points in 65 games while serving as the Oil Kings captain, earning notice as conference MVP that year.
Even a year ago, Fix-Wolansky showed plenty of skill when he was on the ice for the Monsters. After the early-season injury, he came back in December and ended up tied for the team lead in goals, totaling a 12-14-26 line in 43 games.
But it was clear that to take the next step, he had to work on his body composition. Monsters head coach Mike Eaves said the difference was notable right away from the time Fix-Wolansky showed up in Columbus in January to join CBJ training camp.
"Right from being camp with the Blue Jackets, I thought Fix-Wolansky, he came back and his body composition was better," Eaves said before the season began. "He learned his lesson from last year, and in those offensive moments that he has in practice and stuff, you can see he has jump. He has some creativity, he can shoot the puck and he's working his release. I think Fix learned from last year and he took a step over the summer.
"He had 10 months to work on his physical outlook, and he did a nice job with that."
Fix-Wolansky's stated goal this year is to make the NHL, and while that might be difficult simply from a numbers standpoint -- the Blue Jackets have no shortage of bodies, and with the pandemic and taxi squad, roster composition is a constantly evolving deal -- he's doing all he can with the Monsters to show he's ready whenever a call might come.
"That's the whole motivation this year," he said. "I think everyone wants to play in the NHL, so I'm the same way. I'm taking this year to get better -- every practice, every day, get stronger and become a more complete player so that whenever that call does come, I'm fully prepared."
Cleveland's game Sunday vs. Rockford was postponed due to AHL Covid-19 protocols, leaving the Monsters with a 2-3-1 record through six of a scheduled 28 games after the team's 6-3 win over the IceHogs on Saturday.
Through those six games, Fix-Wolanksy is tied for the team lead in points with none other than Nathan Gerbe, the seemingly ageless forward who has two goals and five assists thus far with his seven points.
Next up is Carson Meyer, the Powell native who is an alum of both the AAA Blue Jackets and Ohio State hockey. Signed by Cleveland this offseason, he's off to a red-hot start to his pro career, opening his year with two goals in his first game before adding three assists Saturday night to give him a 2-3-5 line in three games. Add in a four-goal game last year with OSU in the Big Ten tournament and he has three multipoint outings in his last five competitive games. Not a bad start at all for Meyer.
AHL veteran Tyler Sikura is also off to a 2-3-5 start, while Zac Dalpe has three goals and a helper in five games and longtime Monsters defenseman Dillon Simpson has a 1-3-4 line thus far.
The team is scheduled to next hit the ice Friday and Saturday with games at Chicago.
KHL Playoffs Begin
It might be hard to believe, but it's playoff time -- at least in Russia, where the KHL season has come to a close and Gagarin Cup play begins tomorrow.
All four Blue Jackets draft picks who are plying their trades in the KHL are headed to the postseason, with three of the four earning division championships and the other one finishing second to a fellow CBJ prospect.
Leading the way is 2018 second-round pick Kirill Marchenko, as the 20-year-old forward plays for the SKA St. Petersburg team that won the Bobrov Division in the Western Conference. Marchenko had to deal with a midseason injury that cost him a month of time, but the high-scoring forward finished the regular season with 15 goals and 28 points in 41 games while often playing first-line minutes. He also has three goals in the last two games and finished the year plus-11.
SKA, the No. 2 seed in the West, will start the playoffs with a series against No. 7 Dinamo Minsk tomorrow.
Another division champion is Yegor Chinakhov, as the 2020 first-round pick saw his Avangard Omsk team capture the Chernyshev Division. Chinakhov missed much of the season when he played for the Russian team at the World Junior Championships then picked up an injury there, but the 20-year-old still earned his 10th goal of the season in the season finale Saturday and finished with a 10-7-17 line in 32 games. Avangard, the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, will begin the postseason tomorrow when it kicks off its series vs. No. 7 Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg.
The third division champion is Dmitri Voronkov, as the power forward and 2019 fourth-round pick got big minutes for an Ak Bars Kazan team that raced to a Kharlamov Division title and earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The 20-year-old Voronkov finished the campaign with seven goals, 12 assists and 19 points with 41 penalty minutes in 53 games. Ak Bars starts the playoffs against Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday.
Lastly, the only reason goaltender Daniil Tarasov and his Salavat Yulaev Ufa team didn't win the Chernyshev Division is that Avangard Omsk finished three points ahead. Tarasov, a 2017 third-round pick, put together an impressive season at age 21, going 11-3-2 in 16 games for Ufa while posting a 2.07 GAA and .925 save percentage. He also had a pair of shutouts and has won his last three starts.
Salavat Yulaev is the No. 4 seed in the East begins the postseason Wednesday against No. 5 Traktor Chelyabinsk.