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Nolan Collins had some big skates to fill when veteran teammates Liam Ross and Dylan Robinson were dropped from the Sudbury Wolves roster due to injuries.

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Yet the rookie defender has not only met, but exceeded the expectations placed on him by Wolves head coach Craig Duncanson and his staff. Played multiple nights against top opposing lines, the 6-foot-3, 192-pound player from Whitby, Ont. product showed increased balance in his own area, as well as flashes of offensive upside.

After recording five points, all assists, in his first 42 games, Collins has added three goals – including an overtime winner – and six assists in his last 15 games, while posting a plus-5 differential over the of this period.

He hopes to continue that positive trend on Friday, when Wolves host the Hamilton Bulldogs in their only game this weekend.

“I’m learning every day,” Collins said shortly before practice on Thursday. “Especially in the second half of the year, I feel as confident as I’ve ever felt with the puck. I get a lot of ice, especially with five Ds last weekend, and I feel confident in all situations. I’m learning a lot about the league and I feel like I belong here now, especially after having had about 50 games under my belt.

Despite a solid and consistent performance in training camp last September, Wolves’ 2020 fifth-round pick understandably needed time to adjust to the speed, strength and skill of his OHL teammates. , but he grew more comfortable with each passing week and, like many Sudbury freshmen, seemed to take his game to a new level after the trade deadline in January.

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“I even remember my first pre-season game, I was like holy, it’s fast,” Collins recalled. “It was a lot faster than Minor Midget for me and I missed a year, so I couldn’t play Junior or anything. The first half of the year I wasn’t putting numbers in, because I was more focused on the defensive side of things, and in the second half I tried to jump into the O zone and be on the game sheet. a little bit more.

“It just took a bit of getting used to and having the confidence to do it, and I’ve built chemistry with my teammates over the season. We’ve got a really good group of guys in there. , everyone loves each other, so playing with these guys and wearing the Wolves shirt with them every night is great.

While other 2004-born prospects such as forwards David Goyette, Evan Konyen and Kocha Delic received a lot of attention, and rightly so, for their performance ahead of the 2022 NHL Draft, the head coach of the Wolves Duncanson seized the opportunity on several occasions. to sing Collins’ praises, and did so again on Thursday.

The Sudbury head coach wholeheartedly approved Collins’ deployment under associate coach Darryl Moxam. Indeed, he believes the young full-back will impress even more as he spends more time in special teams.

“We were excited about Nolan from the start,” Duncanson said. “He can skate, he can handle the puck and he’s become a very solid defenseman. I think he’s going to be an absolute monster by the time he’s finished here in the league. Darryl uses him regularly against other teams’ top lines and not many 17-year-old defensemen do, but he does it pretty well.

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That was general manager Rob Papineau’s hope when he made Collins the 88th overall pick in the 2020 draft, after picking Goyette in the first round, Delic in the second and Konyen in the fourth.

“OHL central scouting had rated him as a AA prospect all year, which suggested they had him in the top 40 picks in this draft,” Papineau recalled. “Some of these guys, you get lucky and you get them a few rounds later, and that was the case with Nolan.

“He’s 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, but what I really love about Nolan and how I think his game really translates to the next level is that he’s a really good skater, a trick skater and he has good speed, and he is also very smart. You watch the way he lifts the guy’s stick just before he gets the puck. He’s hard to counterattack because he has a lot of natural disappointment in his game and he’s able to skate and get out of trouble. He doesn’t get beaten too often one-on-one and he’s physical, he’s got that other element to his game and it’s hard to play against him, he’s not the type of guy who will back down from whoever that it would be.

Collins was noticeable in his absence, Duncanson said, while serving a two-game suspension for slewfooting, as well as when he returned to the lineup last weekend, when he registered a power-play goal , an assist and a plus-2 differential on three straight wins for Wolves.
“When we don’t have it, it’s a challenge,” Duncanson said. “He is a big threat on the right side. He is very effective and he is very solid for us defensively, but he also has an offensive advantage that we have not taken advantage of this year and that we have not used enough, quite frankly.

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“Darryl has worked very hard and we trusted him, but that has mostly to do with Nolan’s approach. He doesn’t come to the morning skates because he’s an exceptional student and a very bright guy, but the smart guys are always easier to train than dumb ones and he just gets things figured out he’s a nice guy who plays the game very disciplined, very tough and tries to make sure he capitalizes on what he’s playing is supposed to do.

With Ross returning last weekend, and with Matthew Mania and Josh Hoover set to come out of the sick bay themselves, Collins is loving the look of Wolves’ blue line entering a final push for the playoffs. .

Sudbury was five points behind Peterborough for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot on Thursday afternoon, with just nine games left on the schedule, thinking the Petes had two games in hand. Wolves were six points behind seventh-placed Ottawa, a team that has also played 59 games.

“I think we just have to keep winning,” Collins said. “We have to do our best and all we can control is our game. We can’t worry about the rest of the league. We just have to keep winning and getting two points every night. We want to do playoffs, that’s our goal, and if we win the rest of our games, we’ll probably get there.

Friday’s game starts at 7:05 p.m. The Wolves won’t return to action until next Thursday, when they visit the Barrie Colts for a 7:30 p.m. start.

bleeson@postmedia.com

Twitter: @ben_leeson

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