When the Calgary Flames invited free agent defenceman Ryan Wilson to camp on a PTO this summer, my interest was immediately piqued. Wilson had always been an interesting player for me going back to his brief time in the Flames organization in 2008-2009. It’s true that the last few years haven’t gone his way thanks to injury, but prior to the last three seasons, things looked to heading in the right direction. Knowing that, and knowing what I’ve seen so far in camp, I think you can make a very compelling argument to turn Wilson’s PTO into a contract.
If you read my piece on David Schlemko during the offseason, you’ll notice some similarities. I felt like re-signing Schlemko as a depth defenceman made sense from a financial standpoint and on-ice standpoint. Well, I can get over that one now because Schlemko signed in New Jersey instead. That doesn’t mean the Flames still aren’t in need of some effective depth at the NHL level, though. I think adding Wilson to the fold is the right move for all the same reasons I thought bringing Schlemko back was.
Financially it’s tough to go wrong if signing Wilson is a possibility. Because Calgary has all the leverage, they’d be able to get Wilson signed to a one year deal at a very cap friendly number. Wilson has had an awful go of it the last three years with injuries limiting him to just 33 games combined over that span. Plain and simple, the guy is looking for a place to play. It’s situations like these when teams end up signing really good value deals.
Wilson is also in a solid age bracket right now. At the age of 28, he’d fit in nicely with the way the Flames have staggered their blueline. Right now, Calgary has players like Dougie Hamilton and TJ Brodie in their early 20’s while Mark Giordano, Dennis Wideman, and Deryk Engelland are in the 30+ category. That would allow Wilson to join Kris Russell in the “middle group” age wise.
But you can’t sign a guy just because he’s in a decent age bracket and he’ll be cheap. If that were the case, a whole bunch of my high school buddies would be playing NHL hockey right now. Even if a deal comes with a low price tag, the Flames are still in the position where they have to be measured about everything they do related to the cap. This isn’t a year ago when they could throw money at the wall and see if something worked. Any player Calgary signs has to be effective on the ice too.
That’s where things get really interesting in Wilson’s case. In the three full-ish seasons he played in Colorado, Wilson put up decent numbers with two 21 point seasons sandwiching a year with 16 points. Nothing there jumps off the page at you, but it’s his underlying numbers that tell a more interesting story.
Wilson started his NHL career with rather mediocre possession numbers, but as the expertly crafted and formatted chart below will show you, things got progressively better year over year.
Doing a rough adjustment of his Corsi for percentage in relation to his offensive zone start in those final two years, Wilson was basically an even possession player. I’m not saying the guy is Drew Doughty, but Wilson has shown the ability at the NHL level to play a regular shift with a decent amount of time spent at the right end of the ice. For a guy you’d be signing as a number six or seven guy, that’s basically all you’re asking for.
I know Calgary’s blueline looks crowded right now, and the pending return of Ladislav Smid will just make things more claustrophobic. But if the Flames sign Wilson and he performs decently, then all of a sudden they’ve created an organizational asset in the snap of a finger. If Calgary was to flip Wilson somewhere else for, say, a sixth round pick it’s still free money. Sure, we’d all like to stumble across a $100 bill, but most of us are still picking up a loonie right?
But maybe Wilson is just okay and turning him into an asset isn’t in the cards. Well, that’s okay too, because in the end, putting Wilson on waivers and potentially losing him isn’t the end of the world. At worst, Wilson goes to Stockton, has his entire cap hit buried, and moves into a leadership role in the minors. Does that even fit the “worst case scenario” tag?
Let’s also not forget that Wilson would fit the bill as a seventh defenceman. Even if Tyler Wotherspoon or Brett Kulak earned their way onto the big roster, they’re not really that well served spending significant time in the press box. Players like that need to play whereas veterans like Wilson are better suited for spot duty role.
There are questions surrounding Wilson, I’m fully aware. First and foremost, we have to remember he hasn’t played anything close to a full season since 2011-2012. Who knows if his body is going to stand up to the rigours of a full NHL or AHL campaign. Foot speed would also be a concern, because it was never Wilson’s strength even when he was playing full-time NHL minutes. But these are the questions the Flames can afford to answer even with him under contract. And they’re also not pressing questions, because we’re still in the very early stages of training camp.
Things just add up for me when it comes to signing Wilson. You know he’ll be cheap and short term, and you’d hope he can be as effective as he was prior to his injuries. We have no idea how Smid will fare when he returns, and we don’t even have a concrete time for that return. As an insurance policy at the very least, signing Wilson to a one year deal is likely a no lose situation.