Colorado Avalanche fans have conflicting opinions about Ryan Wilson.
Some remember him as a hard-hitting defenseman who delivered bone-rattling hits, a surprise success considering he went undrafted. Others see him as an injury-ridden albatross on the Avalanche roster, a defensive liability the team is better off without.
Wilson was traded to Colorado in March 2009, when he and Lawrence Nycholat were dealt from the Calgary Flames (along with a second round pick) in exchange for Jordan Leopold.
Despite the fact that he played the majority of his games with the Flames' then-AHL affiliate the Quad City Flames, Wilson played only a handful of games for the Lake Erie Monsters in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 season. He cracked the injury-riddled Avalanche's roster in short order and began to develop a reputation as a defensively responsible bodychecker who wasn't afraid to drop the gloves if necessary.
Unfortunately, as his rookie season progressed, Wilson suffered two concussions. The first came in January 2010 on a hit from the Edmonton Oilers' Jean-Francois Jacques. Wilson was sidelined until early February, then returned to the lineup.
The second concussion was sustained during a March 18th fight against Jamal Mayers against Wilson's former team. Though this concussion was described as "mild," Wilson didn't return to action until the end of the month.
After his concussions, Wilson noticeably struggled to maintain the same level of play that he'd begun the season with. Coach Joe Sacco occasionally healthy-scratched him, especially when John-Michael Liles was healthy.
In spite of his concussion difficulties and what some saw as friction between he and Coach Sacco, Wilson ended the regular season at third place in points for the Avalanche defensive corps. He also led the team in plus-minus. Wilson saw some ice time during the Avalanche's aborted 2009-10 playoff run against the San Jose Sharks, netting one assist in four games.
The 2010-11 season didn't start off much better than the last one ended for Wilson, who was sidelined due to a blood clot in his leg. He then suffered a knee injury later in the year and ended the season with 16 points in 67 games played. Though there were murmurs that his skating was beginning to suffer, Wilson continued to play solid defensively-minded hockey on a struggling roster. He ranked third for the Avs in both blocked shots and hits and fit in well with the likes of Liles and Jan Hejda.
Wilson received a qualifying offer from the Avs that summer, but ended up filing for arbitration instead. Like Ryan O'Reilly, he signed a last-minute deal to avoid the arbitration hearing, securing himself a spot on the Avalanche roster for a further year at a price of 1.2 million dollars.
In 2011-12, Wilson missed the entire preseason with a thumb injury. He suited up for the season opener, where his play was described as "uneventful."
Once his hand recovered, Wilson showed flashes of the player that Avalanche fans knew and loved. He was touted as one of the team's best players and profiled by the Denver Post's Mike Chambers:
The ultra-tough, do-it-all defenseman/middleweight enforcer is probably the Avs' early MVP.
Joe Sacco had praise for Wilson's playstyle, as quoted in the above Post article:
"He's carved out a niche for himself, because he does have a reputation around the league right now as a guy that, as an opposing player, you have to be aware of when he's on the ice. You have to have your head up. "Those guys are hard to come by, and Ryan is learning to do it the right way, learning to do it more consistently, and that's the strength of his game — to keep the opponents on their toes when he's on the ice."
November of 2011 was seen as a return to form for Wilson, who tallied 14 points in 28 games, but a concussion in early December cut that short.
Wilson was concussed on December 6th, then placed on Injured Reserve, and when he was finally activated once more, he was a healthy scratch. Joe Sacco explained to media at the time that he didn't want to mess with the team's winning chemistry, as the Avs were riding a four-game road winning streak.
A combination of injuries to other Avs and to Wilson himself saw him bounce on and off the roster for the rest of the season. Often times when he was healthy, he was scratched. Sacco publicly criticised his play. The Avs failed to make the playoffs for the second straight year.
Knowing what we do now about how few games Wilson would go on to play, the $6.7 million contract he received in June 2012 sounds like madness. But it's important to remember the climate at the time: Wilson had suffered several injuries, but he'd played 61, 67, and 59 games per season despite them. He had continued to block shots and play the body. The new contract was hailed as a smart move.
And now that we've caught up to somewhat more recent history, many of the people reading this blog know what happens from there, starting with the 2012-13 NHL Lockout.
Wilson started out the 2012-13 season mid-January, earning 3 points in 8 games, but was injured again by February 3rd. He tangled skates with the Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. wrenched a leg, and went down with an ankle injury. The rest of the month came and went. Wilson was finally reactivated in March.
Upon his return, he clocked an immediate 22:19 of ice time. He was +7 in only 9 games. On a squad that was more defensively stacked, those might not have been noteworthy numbers, but for the Avalanche in early 2013, that wasn't too shabby.
He played in only three more games for the Avs that season, reinjuring his ankle on the 18th and again on the 25th of March. When the Avalanche failed to make the playoffs yet again, Coach Sacco mentioned Wilson's absence:
"He's a big part of the team on the back end and we've missed him," Sacco said. "He can play against top lines against the other team and he plays hard minutes — a good versatile player who kills penalties and a guy the other team has to know when he's on the ice. That was a big loss, sitting him out most of the year. You hate to use that an excuse, but he would have helped."
Well, we know what happened to Joe Sacco from that point. But what about Wilson?
Wilson began the 2013-14 season on Injured Reserve due to a preseason knee injury. He was on and off the roster, hurting his back shortly after returning to play. When Wilson was finally healthy again in December, he had nascent defensemen Nick Holden and Tyson Barrie to compete with. A familiar pattern emerged: even though he'd healed, Wilson couldn't crack the lineup.
When he was on the ice, he was frequently criticised for lazy, sloppy play.
Come the end of December 2013, Coach Patrick Roy utilised Wilson sparingly. He saw minutes here and there on both the penalty kill and the power play. Then he was demoted to the AHL for a conditioning stint. Though he was called up a few times, he sat mostly in the press box until Tyson Barrie's injury in the playoffs at the hands of the Minnesota Wilde's Matt Cooke.
When the Avs were eliminated from playoff contention, Wilson had clocked just 32 games between the regular and postseason.
That summer, Wilson and Coach Roy had a talk, as revealed in this 2014 preseason interview.
Roy said a year ago his injuries and demotions stemmed from not being prepared physically. That's not uncommon for a gritty undrafted player after receiving a big contract and feeling he had won the lottery. Wilson enters this season in a contract year and surely won't be re-signed by the Avs if he fails to return to form. Is he the Ryan Wilson of old, the big-hitting, middleweight enforcer who plays a clean defensive game and can chip in offensively? "I think it shows how I'm playing," he said. "Haven't felt this good in two, maybe three years."
Wilson showed up to camp in fantastic shape, making a noticeable impression on fans and media alike. And on Patrick Roy.
The Ryan Wilson of late 2014 seemed almost poised for a resurgence. Though he was still responsible for some defensive lapses, the big hits were back and his potential return to good health was one of the few bright spots of an otherwise flaccid preseason and early October.
But midway through the month, Wilson was struck in the head by a puck and sustained yet another concussion.
Kind of a raw deal when considered against how hard he'd worked in the offseason. No amount of conditioning and strength training will prepare a body for that. Fortunately, he only missed three games.
On his first game back, Wilson sustained a shoulder injury against the Florida Panthers. Prior to being taken out, his only real contribution to that game was a turnover that led directly to an opposition goal.
This morning, the team announced that his shoulder injury--though not initially reported as severe--would end his season.
All told, Wilson has played 43 games for the entirety of his $6.75 million contract.
With his age (27), injury history, and the number of bottom-pair defenseman signings the Avalanche have recently made, it's likely that we won't see #44 in an Avs sweater again.
Whatever your thoughts on Wilson's contributions to the Avs in recent years, one can't deny that for a while, he was one of the most entertaining defensemen on the roster. He was fun to watch, a genuine hard work success story, and by all accounts an all-around cool dude.
Now a pending UFA with the deck stacked against him, it remains to be seen if Wilson will manage a comeback. If he does, it likely won't be in burgundy and blue, but I'll be rooting for him anyway.