In the 2014-15 season, Tyler Wotherspoon had to wait until a meaningless Game 82 to set foot back on NHL ice. In 2015-16, it took him until Game 57. Not only that, but he got an extra 10 games out of it, to boot.
So while Wotherspoon didn’t get any playoff games in this past season, he got more NHL time in general. He’s an upcoming restricted free agent who looked like he might be able to fill in as a bottom pairing defenceman at the NHL level; it wasn’t a bad year for him at all.
Wotherspoon spent the first half of his season playing as one of the Stockton Heat’s top defencemen. The second half of his season was a bit more up-and-down – literally, as he was shuffled back and forth between Calgary and Stockton. He made his NHL debut for the season on Feb. 19, a necessary recall as Dennis Wideman was still serving his seemingly endless suspension, Ladislav Smid’s season had just ended due to injury, and Kris Russell had already played his last game as a Flame and was being held out of the lineup due to minor injuries.
Wotherspoon stayed up with the Flames for the final six games in February. When they acquired Jyrki Jokipakka from Dallas – and he was able to meet the Flames on their road trip – Wotherspoon had to be sent back down, but he returned due to concern over a Jakub Nakladal eye injury, and stayed for an extra game when Deryk Engelland was held out due to a minor injury.
He returned for a final three games in late March when Engelland missed a road trip due to his son’s birth. Following that, Wotherspoon went back to Stockton and closed out his season there, as a handful of other prospective defencemen were called up during the final eight games of the season when necessary: possibly an indication that the Flames had seen enough from Wotherspoon to have a decision on him, as he had been the default go-to defence recall up to that point.
In the NHL, Wotherspoon scored one assist over 11 games, had nine shots on net, and averaged 14:10 in ice time a game. In the AHL, he scored two goals and 10 points over 53 games (seventh in Heat defencemen scoring), and had 55 shots on net.
Impact on team
Top left has players in most difficult circumstances: more defensive zone starts and tougher competition. Bottom right has players in easiest circumstances: a lot of offensive zone starts and weak competition. The bigger a player’s circle, the more he plays. The bluer, the greater his possession relative to his teammates; the redder, the worse. Click on image for full-sized chart from Corsica
Wotherspoon was essentially as sheltered as a defenceman could get. He didn’t have quite the zone starts Jakub Nakladal did, but he still faced paltry competition.
The two players who most line up with his usage are veteran Smid and rookie Brett Kulak. Simply at face value, both young players were better than Smid, who clocked in at a 46.81% 5v5 CF. He played twice the games Wotherspoon did, but it’s difficult to see Wotherspoon dropping that far from his 53.17% CF over an additional 11 games.
Wotherspoon was fifth on the entire Flames team in corsi for, but everyone above him played fewer than 10 games in the NHL (including Kulak and his 55.62%). He had the best corsi out of all Flames who played at least 10 games, but again – he only played 11 in relatively easy circumstances, so this is hardly a concrete endorsement. (Nakladal was right after Wotherspoon with 53.04%, but with an extra 16 games played and noticeably better zone starts.)
Still, it’s difficult to argue the Flames would have been better served with Smid in Wotherspoon’s place.
In the AHL, Wotherspoon was the fifth oldest regular defenceman on Stockton, behind Aaron Johnson, Nakladal, Dustin Stevenson, and Kenney Morrison. He was a regular top defenceman for the team, though, and his 53 games played were the second most for a blueliner on the Heat – behind just Kulak, who played 59.
What comes next?
Assuming Wotherspoon, an upcoming restricted free agent, is re-signed, he should likely be given an opportunity to earn a spot with the Flames out of camp. It probably wouldn’t be any better than a sixth or seventh defenceman, but a spot is a spot, and it’ll still be up to him to prove he deserves more.
While Kulak appears to have the better numbers, both in the AHL and NHL, it makes more sense to have Wotherspoon up in the NHL. Unless Kulak is going to be able to realistically play in the top four from the start of the season, he’s likely better served honing his game as a top defender in the AHL than mostly riding the pine in the big leagues, so he can continue to grow and develop.
The same argument could apply to Wotherspoon, 23, who will be waiver eligible for the first time in his career in 2016-17. He’s not so young that his career has stagnated, but this could be do or die time for him.
Assuming no statuses change, the Flames have Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Dougie Hamilton, Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland, and Jyrki Jokipakka readily available to them. That’s six defencemen already, plus the possibility of a seventh should Smid be able to play again. Throw in Nakladal’s status as a free agent the Flames might like to re-sign, and it’s a crowded blueline for Wotherspoon to break into.
Assuming Wotherspoon stays with the Flames – and I do think they qualify and re-sign him to a one-year deal – he’s going to have to have a hell of a camp to prove he deserves to be in the NHL, even as a bottom defender. If not, it’s likely back to Stockton as a top defender in the AHL, and probably one of the first guys on the recall list should it be necessary.
But if there’s one thing this past season reinforced: the Flames are better off with kids and newcomers playing in depth roles than overpaid veterans.