Calgary has really worked hard to improve its prospect base over the past three or four years, with a pretty big degree of success. The goaltending prospect base now includes Mason McDonald and college standout Jon Gillies. The forward ranks swelled due to five first round picks over the past three years, all spent on different types of forwards in Mark Jankowski, Sean Monahan, Emile Poirier, Morgan Klimchuk and Sam Bennett. Monahan played a full NHL season last year, and Poirier and Klimchuk both impressed in brief appearances for Abbotsford.
The obvious big hole here is on defense.
Last season, the Flames had three blueliners turn pro – Tyler Wotherspoon, John Ramage and Patrick Sieloff. Only one of them played significant time in the AHL, and that player saw significant time in the NHL, too. Tyler Wotherspoon may also spend time in the NHL this year.
Wotherspoon was drafted into some really great WHL circumstances. In short – the Portland Winterhawks were (and are) a really good junior team and his plus/minus throughout his tenure is really just an indicator that he went from being a beneificary of being on a good team to being one of the team’s drivers. His plus/minus in 2012-13 was second-best in the entire Canadian Hockey League, which is good for bragging rights but not worth much else.
He’s also got the benefit of a lot of big-game experience. He made three consecutive trips to the WHL Championship series – in 2011, 2012 and 2013 – losing twice and finally winning in his last year in the ‘Dub. He competed in the 2013 Memorial Cup, losing in the finals to Nathan MacKinnon’s Halifax Mooseheads. He also earned a spot on Team Canada’s entry at the 2013 World Juniors, finishing fourth. Sure, that involved losing in both the semis and the bronze medal game, but you learn a lot about your game by losing big games in your career.
Wotherspoon turned pro in 2013-14 and was expected to translate his quiet two-way game to the AHL without much fanfare. Outside of missing time due to a suspected concussion, he did largely that. He had 9 points in 48 games when he was recalled to Calgary on March 6th to replace the injured Dennis Wideman. The other healthy Heat defenders at the time were Brady Lamb (AHL contract), Chris Breen, Shane O’Brien, Chad Billins, Derek Smith and Kane LaFranchise (AHL contract), so it’s likely the brass wanted a look-see at Wotherspoon as an NHLer.
In a shocker – and warning, sample size! – Wotherspoon proved entirely capable of being a third-pairing NHL defenseman. At the ripe old age of 21. Alas, his scoring totals were higher than you would’ve expected and his possession stats sucked – ES Corsi of 40.8%, CorsiRel of -26.1 – and he went down for shoulder surgery after 14 games. But remember: sample size, 21 years old, and played with Ladislav Smid a lot (and probably played hurt).
For a glimpse of how Wotherspoon may be handled, look at T.J. Brodie’s career trajectory. Brodie got a cup-of-coffee to guage his status in his first pro year. Then he improved and split his second year between the NHL and AHL. In his third year, he became an everyday NHLer (and a pretty good one).
Wotherspoon is a pretty good hand, although you could argue he’s not “great” at any one thing. He’s a good skater. He’s got a good shot. He’s got good vision. He’s an underrated offensive talent and probably needs to adjust to the NHL’s speed and physicality a bit. That said, he rarely got caught and didn’t face too many growing pains in the NHL. But he will, so it’s important to probably give him time to adjust. But he’s got a knack for stepping up from time-to-time, including a game against San Jose at home where he set up Joe Colborne at the side of the net with a gorgeous tape-to-tape slap-pass. That led to one of my favourite quote/Tweets of the season:
“Sorry, I’ll get out of the way.” – Wotherspoon (his stall’s by Gio’s, which draws a lot of media).
“No, Tyler. We’re here to talk to you.”
— Kristin Hallett (@Kristin_Hallett) March 25, 2014
If I were a betting man, I’d think the Flames probably see Wotherspoon’s trajectory as similar to Brodie’s. They’ve seen him play in the NHL and have an idea what they want him to work on. They probably think they can rely on him to be in the NHL soon, and probably wouldn’t be averse to using him as a call-up. He’s probably the most NHL-ready of all their call-ups. He’ll get more NHL time in this season than he did last season. His possession numbers will need to improve, but I’d imagine his bolstered confidence (after some NHL success) will give him better numbers in the AHL at the very least.
He’s used to living on his own. He’s used to the AHL travel. He’s gotten his feet wet in the NHL. Wotherspoon will be better in 2014-15 than he was in 2013-14. Just how much better he becomes will determine how quickly he makes it to the NHL full-time.