By Adam Brady
Chris Wagner had a moment in this morning’s practice at Honda Center that only further reinforces what an unusual last six months it has been for the 24-year-old center.
Wagner found himself on a 1-on-2 rush during a mid-practice drill, and his speed down the wing caused teammate Korbinian Holzer to take a spill. A half-second later, Wagner toe-dragged to completely befuddle defensive specialist Jakob Silfverberg, then waited out goalie John Gibson before burying the puck far side. Each move brought successively louder “Ohhhhhh”s from watching teammates, and the play culminated with Wagner being engulfed in a hug from teammate Chris Stewart.
“It was just good fun,” Wagner said with a smile. “You’ve got to keep it light in practice sometimes and have fun out there.”
Of course, Wagner’s first goal in a Ducks game uniform is still to come, but the fact that he made that play in Ducks practice gear is almost as astounding. Five months ago in mid-November, the native of Walpole, Massachusetts was reassigned by the Ducks to San Diego of the AHL, but never made it there, instead getting claimed off waivers by the Colorado Avalanche. It was a bit of a jolt for Wagner, who grew up with the Ducks after being taken by Anaheim in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL Draft and had already once cleared waivers this season.
|“I thought I was going to be there the rest of the year, so it was surprising to go back on waivers. But once I did, I kind of had thoughts that the Ducks would pick me up again. I knew everybody here, and obviously it’s a winning team and opportunity to get back to the playoffs and hopefully make a long run.” |
“When you’re on waivers, there are a thousand thoughts going through your head,” Wagner said, “and you don’t really know what’s gonna happen.”
What did happen was Wagner played 26 games for the Avs, scoring his first NHL goal just five days after arriving in Denver and adding three more. But he was mildly surprised when the Avs put him on waivers last month just before the NHL Trade Deadline, opening the door for Anaheim to snatch him right back.
“I thought I was going to be there the rest of the year, so it was surprising to go back on waivers,” says the baby-faced Wagner, who bares a striking resemblance to former Ducks center Sami Pahlsson. “But once I did, I kind of had thoughts that the Ducks would pick me up again. I knew everybody here, and obviously it’s a winning team and opportunity to get back to the playoffs and hopefully make a long run. It’s the team I got drafted by and have been with for a little while now. ”
The Ducks had him bide his time in San Diego until a rash of injuries led to his call-up last Friday, but that was only part of the good news for Wagner on that April Fool’s Day. Just before being informed of his return to the show, Wagner signed a two-year extension with the Ducks, the high point of a year Wagner calls “mentally draining.”
“It kind of came out of the blue, and it happened pretty quick,” Wagner says. “Once we got a good offer, I wasn’t hesitant to sign it. I didn’t want to wait until free agency. I don’t know if I could have handled another ‘if, and or but’ kind of thing.”
The fact that Wagner was looking at a Ducks contract at all was almost surreal considering what had transpired already this season. “I would have never thought three months ago in Colorado I would be signing a two-year extension here," he says. "But obviously, you don’t want to burn bridges when you leave an organization, because you never know if you might end up back there.”
|“That would probably keep me in the lineup more than scoring a goal here and there, just making the smart plays and getting the puck out of the zone in the third period or crunch time, playing smart defensively. That’s going to make a better impression than scoring the occasional goal.” |
The deal further reinforced the Ducks were regretful of losing Wagner to waivers back in November, and maintained high hopes for what he could do for the organization since drafting him 5 1/2 years ago. Sure, he’s still seeking that first goal as a Duck, but he has brought so much more to the table in his time with the organization. A couple of bone-jarring hits in Sunday night’s impressive victory over Dallas are evidence of that.
“That would probably keep me in the lineup more than scoring a goal here and there, just making the smart plays and getting the puck out of the zone in the third period or crunch time, playing smart defensively,” Wagner says. “That’s going to make a better impression than scoring the occasional goal.”
How far that will take him the rest of this season – and possibly into the postseason – remains to be seen, but this year has taught Wagner plenty about what he can manage.
“I’m just trying to play as hard as I can and make a good impression, just help any way I can,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, obviously, but you’ve just got to control what you can control. That’s pretty much what I’ve learned this year. Everything happens for a reason.”