After 552 games in the NHL, Wolves defenseman James Wisniewski still believes he has plenty of top-level hockey left.
But for the fifth-round pick of the Blackhawks in 2002 who spent 14 years with six teams, getting back to the league hasn’t been easy.
After tearing his anterior cruciate ligament twice, Wisniewski, 33, signed with the Wolves in January. He believed that playing in the AHL would lead to him being claimed by an NHL team looking to bolster its roster for a playoff run.
It never happened. So as the Wolves began the Central Division finals against the Grand Rapids Griffins with a 4-1 loss Wednesday, Wisniewski wants to make the most of this opportunity, though he was held out of the game.
Wisniewski has had to adjust to playing in the AHL.
“Obviously, it’s different,” Wisniewski said. “You kind of get spoiled with everything in the NHL, but it’s humbling and it kind of brings you back down to earth a little bit. Now my focus is trying to win with this team.”
In 21 regular-season games and three playoff appearances entering Wednesday, Wisniewski has four goals and nine assists.
Admittedly, there have been nights when Wisniewski, who is just three years removed from a 51-point season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, has had to do some soul-searching.
After he was cut following a training-camp tryout with the Tampa Bay Lightning last fall, Wisniewski played in the KHL before returning to the AHL to increase his visibility. But in a league that’s about getting young talent to the NHL, Wisniewski has approached this season as an audition.
He said the transition to the AHL, where he hadn’t played since his early days with the Hawks before making his NHL debut in 2005, has been “mentally pestering” at times.
“I don’t want to end my career on an injury or somebody telling me I can’t play,” said Wisniewski, who’s looking ahead to the jobs that will be created when the expansion Vegas Golden Knights debut next season.
“So I’m doing this for myself and making sure I didn’t leave any stones unturned. I don’t want to look back in five years and say, ‘I wish I would have given it one more shot to get back to the NHL.”
Wisniewski will rely on his work ethic to get back to the NHL.
“I had to earn every little thing that I had, and I just kept proving people wrong day in and day out,” he said. “I can honestly say that I have worked for everything that I’ve had, and I’m proud of that.”
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