When the Los Angeles Kings acquired 26-year-old defenseman Christian Wolanin from the Ottawa Senators on March 29, they had a chance to make the deal last beyond just this season. Playing on an expiring contract this season, Wolanin appeared likely to be a restricted free agent this summer. However, there was a chance that he could instead qualify for Group VI unrestricted free agency, a status reserved for players 25 and older with three or more professional seasons but with fewer than 80 NHL games played. Yet, due to the shortened 2020-21 season, that games played total was actually reduced to 71 total games played for Wolanin, making it even less likely that he would end up as a Group VI UFA. He entered the season with 43 games played and as a starting defenseman for Ottawa it seemed fairly obvious that he would play the necessary 28 games if he stayed healthy.
The first sign that Wolanin may fall short of the games played requirement for further team control came during a streak of ten games earlier this season when Wolanin was benched by the Senators. With the likes of Mike Reilly and Artem Zub establishing themselves as blue line fixtures for Ottawa early on, Wolanin slid out of the top four and then out of the lineup entirely. Perhaps sensing that he would not become an RFA if he stayed in Ottawa all season, the team first waived Wolanin and then began floating his name to other teams who might have more interest in playing him. Still, by the time he was dealt in late March, Wolanin had played in a few more games for the Senators following his benching and remained just 13 games shy of the games played mark with more than a month left in the season.
Well tonight, the night of April 28, marks nearly a month since Wolanin landed with the Kings in a deal for forward Michael Amadio. In that time, Wolanin has played in just three games for Los Angeles. More importantly, tonight’s match-up between L.A. and the Anaheim Ducks also marks ten games left in the regular season for the Kings. In order to retain control over Wolanin beyond this season as an RFA rather than allow him to walk as a Group VI UFA, the defenseman needed to be in the lineup tonight and for each of the team’s remaining games. Wouldn’t you know it, the Kings dressed seven defensemen tonight – none of them named Christian Wolanin. The 26-year-old will hit the open market this summer, despite all expectations to the contrary entering the season.
It seems that the Kings, like the Senators, are not all that bothered by losing Wolanin. L.A. is technically still in the playoff mix in the West Division, but are well outside the picture. They would not have been making much of a sacrifice by playing Wolanin over another defenseman, just as the bottom-dwelling Senators might have done. In that same vein, this result also serves to benefit the man himself. Having spent time on two teams who did not value his contributions, he can now seek a superior fit for next season. Sure, Wolanin is unlikely to get the $1MM qualifying offer that he would have been owed if either Ottawa or L.A. had wanted to keep him for one last year, but this way he can move on with the next stage of his career and have some control over what happens next. The former North Dakota standout still has some upside to his game and just needs to find a team willing to give him a chance.