We’re into mid-July around the hockey world and the Calgary Flames still have four restricted free agents left to re-sign. The most prominent names are forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan (along with Freddie Hamilton), but blueliner Tyler Wotherspoon hasn’t signed yet either. (Also on the market: unrestricted free agent Jakub Nakladal).
Given the quiet marketplace for blueliners, I’ve heard the question on Twitter (and elsewhere): why haven’t Wotherspoon and/or Nakladal re-signed yet?
If you want a short answer, here it is: Ladislav Smid.
Smid came to the Flames in November 2013 in just the second trade between Calgary and Edmonton. (The other one involved Steve Staios, if you’d like a sense of how low the bar has been set there.) He was decent enough in his first season with the club (2013-14), but has played just 53 of a possible 164 games over the past two seasons. The reason he’s missed 111 games over the past two years is a recurring neck injury, the product of a few collisions he’s been in – he last played on Feb. 17.
He has a year left on his contract. He has no incentive to retire, as retiring would void the final year of his contract (and he would get zero money out of it). The Flames didn’t buy him out – either because they didn’t want to or perhaps he wasn’t medically cleared and it wasn’t an option – so they’re on the hook for his $3.5 million contract. So as they were last year, the Flames are left to wait and see how he’ll recover from last season’s neck injury and whether or not he’ll be placed on the long-term injured reserve (and give them some cap relief).
Last season, everyone and their dog raved about what a great fit David Schlemko was on the Flames. But with the Flames jammed up with one way contracts, it’s likely that Schlemko’s agent was looking for clarity in terms of fit and opportunity in Calgary, and sighed and ended up in New Jersey. (Evidence for that theory: he signed in September.)
This season’s versions of Schlemko are Wotherspoon and Nakladal.
Wotherspoon, 23, was one of Calgary’s second round picks back in 2011. He just finished his entry-level contract and is no longer waiver exempt. He’s played 26 NHL games and 162 AHL games between Abbotsford, Adirondack and Stockton. He’s been good, but not great, and he’s in the position where I’m not entirely sure he’d be claimed on waivers. If I’m his agent, I’m asking for a one-way deal (so that Wotherspoon gets sweet, sweet NHL money no matter if he’s in the NHL or not) or maybe a deal with a big AHL salary. If he’s not going to definitely be in the NHL, Wotherspoon probably should try to get paid. If he’s in the NHL, he’s probably a third-pairing guy and if he’s in the AHL he’s probably a top-pairing guy.
Nakladal, 28, made the journey to North America from Europe last season. He had hoped to play in the NHL. He spent half of the year in scenic Stockton, California. When he finally hit the NHL, he was pretty good. Like Wotherspoon, he’s no longer waiver exempt. Given he got power-play time last season, I’m not sure if he goes through waivers unclaimed. And given his experience level and how damn long it took him to get an NHL roster spot last season, he’s probably (a) not signing a two-way and (b) probably not signing unless he’s damn sure he’s going to be on the NHL roster.
Smid is probably going to miss the beginning of next season. Probably. But the problem is there isn’t a ton of clarity right now, and this is the exact same situation as last summer. Without having a good idea of where they would be play and what their role would be, why would Wotherspoon or Nakladal both sign with the Flames?
Wotherspoon is a restricted free agent and as a tweener that hasn’t established himself in the NHL quite yet, he’s a commodity that most clubs have in spades. He doesn’t have a ton of leverage on the Flames, nor do they on him.
- If he doesn’t sign, it’s unlikely that other clubs will try to steal him away from the Flames via offer sheet.
- If he doesn’t sign, it’s also unlikely that the Flames will be bereft of other left-shooting options.
In essence, the Flames are hoping that both camps – Wotherspoon’s and Nakladal’s – will take a lesser deal in the hopes of taking advantage of Smid’s likely absence (and the roster spot). But since there are no certainties and he’s still under contract and could recover enough between now and camp in September to be an on-ice presence at some point in 2016-17, it’s easy to understand both blueliners’ reluctance to sign on the dotted line.