Nolan Wallace went from being the youngest defenceman on the Brandon U18 AAA Wheat Kings last season, to anchoring Brandon’s back end as the only returning blue-liner.
Wallace, in his 16-year-old season, has a December birthday, meaning he made the Wheat Kings squad as a 14-year-old in 2018-19. That season, of course, Brandon went on to win the Manitoba U18 AAA Hockey League title.
Wallace finished last year with one goal and 11 assists in 48 games, playing on a stacked Wheat Kings roster.
"It was pretty crazy to come into the league and we had some great talent on our team last year and not only great talent on the ice but off the ice as well," the five-foot-nine defender said. "We were a real tight team and it was great to be a part of. It was a really good experience."
Despite not being one of the main guys last season, Wallace embraced his job on the blue-line.
"I played a different role last year obviously, youngest defenceman," he said. "I was fine with that, I played my role, made sure I played well defensively and that I was good. I took my knowledge from last year and it’s helped me this year as the only returning D-man."
This season, Wallace has become one of the key building blocks on a rebuilding Brandon squad. The smooth-skating defenceman is relied upon to quarterback the first power play unit and gets regular minutes on the penalty kill. Wheat Kings assistant coach Travis Mealy said Wallace has handled the new workload well.
"He’s a leader in the room, that’s why we put a letter on him. No matter what D-man we put with him, usually they’re our 1-2 top pairing and we couldn’t ask anything for him," Mealy said. "He’s there on the power play this year, he’s on the penalty kill. He’s done everything."
Through 44 games this season, Wallace leads all Wheat Kings blue-liners with four goals and 29 assists for 33 points.
"It’s obviously a lot different going from the youngest guy to the only returning guy but I was glad to come back and I was ready to play in whatever position I needed to play in," he said. "It just happened to be that I was the only returning guy and that’s the role I had to fill in."
Wallace, who was selected 46th overall in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League draft by the Virden Oil Capitals, enjoys setting his teammates up.
"I like to move the puck and make plays and that’s always good, getting out of the zone to be able to make that first pass," he said. "Just to give somebody an opportunity to do something with the puck and sometimes it’s just getting shots through or rebounds are being collected so that’s probably part of it."
Mealy said Wallace has gained confidence in his game as the season has worn on.
"He gets a lot more ice time," he said. "Last year he was a 15-year-old on a very strong team with a deep defensive core and wasn’t leaned on as much."
Being an assistant captain, Wallace said he likes to lead by example.
"My play can speak for itself," he said. "I don’t need to be a flashy guy but being defensively solid and helping out whenever I can."
Wallace has also come a long way from his days with the bantam AAA Wheat Kings, where he was the league’s most penalized player two years in a row. He racked up 80 penalty minutes in 2016-17 and 104 in 2017-18. Wallace chalked it up to "some young dumbness."
"It was my game, I was physical, I was aggressive, that’s just how I was," he said.
Wallace has been able to limit his trips to the sin bin since his bantam days.
"Especially in this league, players are so fast and agile, those big runs I’m sure he was taking in bantam are limiting … that now if he makes a mistake, he’s out of position," Mealy said.
This season has certainly had its growing pains for this young team. The Wheat Kings — despite winning their last two games — sit well out of the league’s playoff picture with a 12-31-0-1 record.
"It’s a different year but this is still a great organization," Wallace said. "I’m very happy and honoured to be a part of it so any day I get to wear the jersey is a great day."
» Twitter: @steltsy94