Tyler Wotherspoon has been a healthy scratch for the Calgary Flames six times so far this season. He has played zero NHL games despite being recalled three times, either as an extra or due to fear of losing one of the regular veteran defencemen.
It took until the third recall for that fear to actually come true, as Mark Giordano was forced to miss his first game of the 2014-15 season. And despite Wotherspoon being present for the game, 31-year-old journeyman Corey Potter, much longer a healthy scratch for the Flames, drew in.
The difference between Potter and Wotherspoon being that while Potter is purely for insurance, Wotherspoon is the Flames’ top defensive prospect; and yet, the only NHL action he has seen this season has been in practices.
Recall the first
Wotherspoon was first recalled after Ladislav Smid went on the injury reserve. The Flames needed a spare defenceman, and with one game left before the All-Star Break, why not bring up their top defensive prospect? At the absolute least, he’d get an NHL practice in; at most, a game. Everyone won.
(Except the Flames, because they ended up losing 6-3 to the Ducks, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Recall the second
With the All-Star Break over and Smid still injured, Wotherspoon was promptly recalled. This was during the great flu scare of late January and early February, and the Flames were concerned Kris Russell would be unable to play; hence Wotherspoon for insurance.
Except Russell was fine, so Wotherspoon sat four straight games. There’s something to be said for wanting your prospect to catch up, or wanting him to just be around NHLers, or even wanting him to just watch games from above and learn up there. There’s another thing to be said for healthy scratching your top defensive prospect for a week. That’s a lot of playing time lost, in addition to All-Star festivities of both the NHL and AHL variety.
And it’s not as though the competition would have been too steep for Wotherspoon to handle. Two of the four games he sat out were against the Buffalo Sabres (who are pretty much the worst team assembled in recent history) and the Edmonton Oilers (who are the Edmonton Oilers, and therefore astonishingly bad).
When the Flames realized they were never actually going to play him, they returned him to Adirondack and called up Potter to sit in his stead, as it should be.
Recall the third
Giordano got hurt, so up came Wotherspoon. Not that just anybody can replace Giordano, but with limited options, the best possible solution for the loss of their best defenceman was to at least recall their best defensive prospect.
And then they… didn’t play him, even though he joined the team in time for the game. Instead Potter, who is pretty much strictly an insurance policy, drew in.
Thinking that Potter was a better option than the kid with top four potential was… odd, to say the least. Potter played a grand total of 7:47 against the New York Islanders, while TJ Brodie, Dennis Wideman, and Russell played nearly 30 minutes each (and in Wideman’s case, a little more than that).
Following the game, David Schlemko was claimed off of waivers, giving the Flames another, much more plausible insurance policy. Wotherspoon’s third recall of the season resulted in the 21-year-old being a healthy scratch for just one game before returning to Adirondack. (And then Potter played a second game, this time with an ice time of 7:37 against the Philadelphia Flyers.)
Is he really a worse option than any of the Flames’ regulars?
Way back in the dark days when Smid and Deryk Engelland were the Flames’ go-to third pairing, Bob Hartley would occasionally scratch Engelland to make sure Raphael Diaz didn’t get too rusty just sitting in the pressbox. The same courtesy was never extended towards Potter nor Wotherspoon, although it should be noted Diaz this season has been an NHL-only guy, while the latter two have played numerous AHL games each.
But that just makes the decision to sit Wotherspoon for such a lengthy period of time all the more bizarre. Hartley has shown no fear for mixing up his lineup in the past to accommodate another player. So why the hesitation to play Wotherspoon? Even if not over Engelland, then why not over Diaz? Not over Potter?
Wotherspoon already has 14 NHL games under his belt, and would have more had it not been for a shoulder injury cutting his 2013-14 season short. He was just starting to hit his stride when it happened, too; three of his four assists came in his final games of the year. He also started getting more ice time, including a couple of 17-minute mark games: games in which he began putting up positive possession numbers. While not quite there yet, Wotherspoon was certainly beginning to look like an NHLer.
And he’s been having a good season in Adirondack this year. Wotherspoon leads all Adirondack regulars with 19 assists, and his 1.83 shots per game is the most out of all defencemen. He’s the clear standout, much more offensively minded and keener to move the puck than the standard bottom pairing options. While Potter may serve as a mentor in the AHL, Wotherspoon is the superior player at that level, too.
So for a team with clear defensive depth issues to repeatedly recall its best prospect at that position and never play him just doesn’t make sense. It’s not like he could be any worse than the current options. And if given the chance, he might just be a pleasant surprise.
That would involve actually giving him that chance, though.