Where It All Went Wrong: The Tyler Wotherspoon Story

Wotherspoon’s
steady decline from the organization’s top defensive prospect to a reliable farm
hand has been slow, painful and tough to watch.

It’s
difficult to pinpoint where things started to fall apart and it’s even harder
to pinpoint why, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore these questions in
depth. He was, after all, the organization’s top ‘D’ prospect and it’s uncommon
to see a fall from grace like we’ve witnessed with Tyler Wotherspoon.

A
BRIEF HISTORY

It’s
weird to think about, but so far the peak of Wotherspoon’s career came way back
in the 2013-14 season where he played 14 games for the Flames. At that time,
the buzz around the organization’s top defensive prospect was growing larger
and larger each game he played in a Flames uniform.

Game
after game he showed an ability to play a fairly effective shutdown game as a
20-year-old despite a 40.5 CF% in those 14 games, but he was learning and that
was the encouraging part. He had flashes where you could almost picture him in
a bottom-pairing role very soon.

The
season ended and a long summer set in after an abysmal season for the Flames,
but at least they were in a rebuild. They were going in a direction. There was
a plan, and Wotherspoon was in those plans – or so we thought. Discussion after
discussion, lineup after lineup, fans were writing Wotherspoon’s name into that
third pairing with their number two pencils all over the blogosphere.

After
a solid development camp, Penticton tournament and training camp, the Flames
2011 second-rounder hadn’t made the team. “That’s okay,” fans would say, “it’s
a deep blueline this year, he’ll get his chance. He was just a victim of the
numbers game. He’ll be back.”

Well,
yeah, he did come back. He came back to Calgary on what seemed like a regular
basis. He was always flying in and out of Adirondack because of one injury or
another. However, not once did we see him in the lineup. Three recalls and a belly
full of press box popcorn to show for it. Healthy scratch after healthy
scratch. It came to a point where comments started creeping up whether or not
Hartley trusted ‘Spoon, whether he was even good enough, whether the fans were
mistaken in thinking he was a legitimate NHL defenseman. Arii summed up this
confusing time for us fairly well in this
piece
from last March.

Oh,
right, he got one game in: Game 82. It was game in which all the Flames’ black
aces were dressed to let the regulars rest for the upcoming playoffs. They were
obliterated. Wotherspoon looked bad, but who didn’t on that night?

THE
FALL

On
the bright side, I guess, Wotherspoon was able to get into six of the 11
playoff games last spring. He barely played and looked just okay. But hey, at
least it was something, right?

Once
the Flames were handily backhand slapped by the Ducks, the exit meetings took
place before the long summer. Management had a clear message for the 22 year
old: “They said, ‘Have a great mindset coming into camp. Have a confident
attitude to come in and really make a statement and take a job,’ ” Wotherspoon
explained (link).

That
summer the Flames picked up the likes Dougie Hamilton and drafted Rasmus
Andersson and Oliver Kylington which bolstered the organization’s defensive
depth immensely. I won’t claim to know what went on in Wotherspoon’s psyche,
but it’s only human to feel added pressure to perform when there’s increased
competition for a limited resource (a roster spot).

Unfortunately,
he didn’t earn a spot.

Wotherspoon
had a rather pedestrian training camp and pre-season – nothing close to the
show Brett Kulak put on game after game. Thus, he found himself on a flight
headed to Stockton.

It
was assumed that Wotherspoon was at the top of the organizational depth chart
as far as defensive prospects go. In other words, it was his job to lose. And
with that, Bob Hartley had some choice words for the former Portland Winterhawk.

“Some
kids, they need a little longer than others to find their spot in an
organization, and sometimes Tyler is too respectful,” said Hartley. “If you
want to steal a jersey or you want to be part of an NHL team, you’ll have to
step on toes. (link)

“You
need to be a little tougher on yourself. You need to be more demanding.” (link)

Ouch.

FAN
PERCEPTION

With
those quotes from the Flames bench boss and witnessing a rare event where an
ECHLer becomes an NHLer in a span of months, fan perception of Wotherspoon hit
rock bottom upon the conclusion of training camp. It’s hard to blame them.

Was
it just the perception that ‘Spoon was the big kid in a shallow pool of
defensive depth? Was he really as
good as we all thought? Did fans overrate him?

Maybe,
maybe, and maybe.

One
thing is for sure, however: Wotherspoon is gripping the walls of that tube
slide, but he’s slowly losing his spot to younger, better equipped players who
fit Hartley’s style of defense. That plays a huge role in fan’s perception of
where Wotherspoon is headed in this organization. He’s a square peg trying to
fit into a round hole.

IS
HE STILL A TOP PROSPECT?

Which
brings me to my last point: with Hartley’s preference for quick, two-way
puck-moving defensemen who can jump into the rush (which currently make up five
out of six players on the Flames blueline), did Wotherspoon even stand a chance
in the first place?

I
think Wotherspoon knew he had to evolve his game if he was going to get a sniff
at the NHL again. To his credit, he did. Last season in Adirondack it was
evident he had added an element of offense to his game. He added a heavy shot.
He earned himself first unit power play time. He set a career high in points.
He even rushed the puck more effectively and took chances that better skating
defenseman normally would (most of the time it even worked). But when he got
back to the NHL, he fell back into his innate shutdown defensive defenseman
form, which is unfortunate. The pressure of not making a mistake defensively
may have impeded his ability to showcase his new skillset.

So,
is Wotherspoon still a top prospect? Unfortunately not.

The
likes of Hickey and Andersson have now taken the pole position. Heck, if
Kylington plays the way he played in the first game, he’ll be up there too. Don’t
forget Kulak who’s already in the NHL and Culkin who would probably be right
there alongside Kulak if not for those freak injuries.

That’s
at least three players who have passed him (Hickey, Andersson and Kulak) and
two who will likely pass him by season’s end (Kylington and Culkin) unless he
can give Ryan Huska no choice but to pick up the phone and dial 1-800-HARTLEY because
of his superb play.

That remains to be seen, but the ball is solely
in Wotherspoon’s court.

  • Burnward

    He’s a good kid, it’s too bad he has been leap frogged in the organization. I think now he still has value. It just may be prudent to include him in a package with a goalie & try to get some value back. I am sure there are other teams that would give him a chance to get his game untracked.

  • everton fc

    Move him, then. Give the kid a chance somewhere else, like they did w/Baertschi, and one could argue, Byron. We are thigh-deep in defenders, as I type. Package him in a deal that gives him, the Flames and the receiving team opportunity.

    Easier “typed” than “done”, of course!

  • everton fc

    Seems a little premature to write the kid off, no? That said, when Hartley is not your fan, it can be an impossible task just to get a reasonable chance.

    What needs to happen for Wotherspoon to play is Engelland needs to go because Wotherspoon is still the closest to being NHL ready (maybe Nakladal, but I’m not entirely sold).

    Hiller or Ramo + Engelland for a 7th round pick? Done.

    • Connor McDaigle

      Outside of newcomers to the game of hockey, there is far too much yapping about Engelland and Bollig on this roster.
      Would you really like to watch them play without them in the lineup? The Flames are a small soft team, folks. Teams with quality players with size and toughness can operate without the more traditional fringe face punchers in the lineup. Calgary as the current roster dictates, cannot.
      End of story. Now quit bitching.

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    “Was it just the perception that ‘Spoon was the big kid in a shallow pool of defensive depth? Was he really as good as we all thought? Did fans overrate him?

    Maybe, maybe, and maybe.

    One thing is for sure, however: Wotherspoon is gripping the walls of that tube slide, but he’s slowly losing his spot to younger, better equipped players”

    It is a good thing when your prospects get passed by your other prospects, A VERY GOOD THING!

    Now look at the above quote about ‘spoon with a different player and maybe we can start to make sense of what is occuring in the Flames organization and BE HAPPY ABOUT IT!

    “Was it just the perception that Backs was the big kid in a shallow pool of forward depth? Was he really as good as we all thought? Did fans overrate him?

    Maybe, maybe, and maybe.

    One thing is for sure, however: Backlund is gripping the walls of that tube slide, but he’s slowly losing his spot to younger, better equipped players”

    Sound familiar?

  • loudogYYC

    I don’t see it the same way. Wotherspoon is still very good young pro with potential. Those comments by Hartley are pretty revealing but so what? Some players are over the top with confidence and others are a little ‘too respectful’. That was the case with Mikael Backlund a few years ago too and now he’s a staple on the team.

    It’s not time to give up on Spoon yet, and if they want to move him they’re better off showcasing him in the NHL. I hope to see him up with the team if/after they trade Russell away.

    • everton fc

      Russell’s a leader. Spoon’s to “respectful”. Won’t see that swap.

      If Engelland goes down, or God forbid anyone else on the backend, you may see Spoon up here. Or Nakladal, who may be more ready (remember, he got hurt during camp, so may need time to see if he’s healed. His point accumulation in the Heat’s first game says he’s healed quite nicely!)

      Kulak made the most of his opportunity. Spoon didn’t. Simple as that. There’s a pecking order, because there’s depth, albeit in bodies (most simply prospects, at this point).

    • al rain

      Ok, so it’s not just me that never bought in.

      I’m no NHL scout, but I’ve always thought of Wotherspoon as being good in a relative way, that is, good compared to the rest of the frighteningly shallow pool of talent that was the Flames defense prospects of a couple years ago, rather than good in an absolute way, as in “NHL-good”

      Don’t get me wrong, I hope he somehow steps up and forces his way onto the big team as much as anyone else does – he’s an organizational asset – but I’m not expecting it. The fact that the Flames went out and made their D depth a strength is fantastic news for everyone who plays/cheers for them, except Wotherspoon (and Sieloff, Kanzig, Gilmour…). I’m good with that.