Coming into this offseason, defence was probably the most important area the Flames needed to address. With everybody healthy, there was a set top four of Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Kris Russell, and Dennis Wideman; after that, there was Deryk Engelland, and… somebody.
That somebody left a small handful of options, either from within their own then-meagre prospect base; or a free agent, either somebody new or returning after an expiring contract (oh, David Schlemko, how are you still available?).
The acquisition of Dougie Hamilton changed everything, though. That one spot that was there for somebody’s taking still exists, but it’s harder to earn, now.
Wotherspoon had an excellent hockey upbringing through the Portland Winterhawks, who were one of the WHL’s top teams throughout his time there. He closed out his junior career on the top pairing of the WHL champions, after all: what more could you ask for, especially when your prospect base is so lacking?
His first professional season got off to a pretty good start, as well. He was no longer the top guy like he was in Portland, but he was only 20 years old, and adjusting to a whole new game. Injuries and trades to the NHL team saw Wotherspoon get his first chance, and over the course of the 14 games he played, he noticeably improved and continued to find his confidence, including getting in a couple of 17 minute nights.
His time in the NHL ended prematurely thanks to a shoulder injury, though: one that carried over through the offseason, preventing Wotherspoon from being able to even so much as battle for a spot at camp prior to the 2014-15 season.
Instead, he was sent down to the AHL, and when healthy, rose up as one of Adirondack’s top defencemen. This was to be expected: the Flames’ farm team from the year before had lost their top, AHL-for-life defenders, when Chad Billins and Derek Smith both left for Europe.
With more responsibility placed upon him, Wotherspoon rose to expectations. There was just one major thing that later ended up putting a pause on things: being recalled to the NHL, and subsequently sitting in the pressbox most of that time.
In a year when the Flames were contending for a top pick, Wotherspoon had the chance to prove himself on NHL ice; in a year when the Flames were contending for a playoff spot, Wotherspoon sat as insurance, and the older Corey Potter played extremely limited minutes in his stead.
Wotherspoon replaced him early into the playoffs, and remained a seldom-used – but used – defender until Raphael Diaz returned from injury.
All of this points to this training camp being crucial for Wotherspoon, and his future with the Flames. Hamilton has made his job that much harder, and his job is to fight for a bottom pairing spot. With another competent body in the mix, and Wotherspoon approaching restricted free agency after this season, he absolutely needs to perform well. It may be more likely to see him as a top defender in Stockton, and one of the top recalls.
No matter what, though, point blank, with competition all the tighter, he needs to up his game and prove himself this season. But even if he does that, there’s a pretty good chance we don’t see him in the NHL at all: we nearly didn’t last year.
Nakladal is in a very different boat from Wotherspoon. For one thing, he’s five years older and has much more professional experience; for another, the Flames haven’t invested as much time in him. That doesn’t mean they care about Nakladal less – it means they have fewer preconceived notions about him.
Nakladal is an undrafted defencemen of decent size who is completely new to the North American game. That alone is going to call for something of an adjustment period, and ultimately, he may turn out to not even be NHL caliber at all.
Still, the fact that he’s older and more experienced does give him a bit of a leg up, something Potter had over Wotherspoon last season. He’s going to have to battle hard in camp as well, and certainly, nothing will be given to him; the Flames probably have more to gain by having Nakladal on the bottom pairing or pressbox and Wotherspoon on the top pairing in Stockton than the other way around, though.
We know Hartley likes to get his NHL-caliber defencemen into games. Before Diaz became a regular, the coach would occasionally scratch Engelland in order for Diaz to play. So if Nakladal does have a good camp, the chances of seeing him in the NHL – whether as a bottom pairing guy or occasional fill-in – seem pretty decent.
If the Flames make no more signings and Smid remains on LTIR, then the Flames have six defencemen with which to work, which pretty much guarantees either Nakladal or Wotherspoon a spot on the NHL roster. Not necessarily on the ice, but definitely on the roster. If somebody gets injured, then whoever gets left out is likely up to act as insurance, just as Diaz, then Potter, and then Wotherspoon did last season.
There are a few other defencemen who, depending on their seasons, do have the potential to get in their first NHL games, but they’re much longer shots comparatively. Wotherspoon and Nakladal have the most professional experience of the group, after all.
Ryan Culkin rose through Adirondack’s ranks this past season, and would have played more – including his first NHL game, in all likelihood – had a wrist injury not ended his season. If he can carry over his performance, he’s probably a top defender for Stockton, though: which could mean a call up if enough things go wrong for the big club.
Kenney Morrison is fresh out of college, and is more likely to have a season similar to Bill Arnold and Kenny Agostino, which is to say: spend the year in the AHL, but have it be a good year, and ultimately rise up through the ranks and establish himself as someone for the future.
And then, as a complete dark horse and wildcard, there’s Oliver Kylington: a kid who may or may not even go to the AHL, but someone who has already played a fair amount of professional hockey, especially for someone his age. However, as exciting of a prospect he is, there’s a reason he fell – but who knows, sometimes, crazy things just happen, and it’s fun to dream. (It’s certainly not something to count on, though.)