Tyler Wotherspoon – the only 2011 Calgary Flames draft pick to not play at least 50 minutes in the league last year – has been stuck in development hell for many years. He was the next man up for the Flames before Brett Kulak came around (which indicates something already) but has never seemed to actually lock down a full time NHL spot. Given some of the Flames’ bottom defencemen since 2011, that’s concerning.
Given his age, his skill set, and the team’s situation, it felt unlikely that he would be qualified. Both team and player would benefit from moving on.
And if you look at the Flames’ moves prior to RFA qualifying, you could not be blamed for thinking this. In the final few days of the 2016-17 season, the Flames traded for (and later re-signed) Michael Stone, plucked Matt Bartkowski out of the AHL, added Josh Healey to the mix, brought Adam Ollas Mattson overseas first on ATO then on AHL contract, survived the expansion draft by keeping Brett Kulak, drafted Juuso Valimaki, and traded for Travis Hamonic.
They addressed some major needs throughout various rungs of the org through these moves, making Wotherspoon seemingly obsolete. Stone, Kulak, and Hamonic would fill the remaining NHL spots, and Bartkowski will fill the pressbox seat. Healey and AOM would take minutes in the AHL. If you want to read deeply, the Flames selected another defenceman from the Dub this past year in Valimaki, which should just make for further competition in the near future.
But, surprisingly enough, they brought back Wotherspoon anyways. In doing so, the Flames have inserted another name into the discussion, arguably needlessly.
The seventh defenceman?
Here’s a pointless debate: who will be the Flames’ seventh defenceman next year?
Initial thought points towards Matt Bartkowski. He’s pretty much filled that role throughout his many years in the NHL. He’s paid like a seventh defenceman and plays like one, too.
He’s absolutely expendable, as all seventh defencemen should be. The Flames only needed him to be exposed in the expansion draft; stepping in for a departed Jyrki Jokipakka was an added feature (if Kulak wasn’t injured late in the season, you feel Bart would have been in the press box). Now that that’s over, he really serves no purpose. You could waive him and he’ll go straight to the minors. If someone else picks him up, oh well.
But keeping him in the press box hurts no one. We know what Bartkowski is: bad. You can stick a bad player in the press box and no one is harmed. If Bart’s in the press box, the up-and-coming are not. Everyone who has a future is on the ice, not watching it.
Another reason why Bartkowski is suited for press box duty is that he really has no future value that can be leveraged from him actually playing. He’s 29, and spent the majority of last season in the AHL after not a single NHL team could find a compelling reason to sign him. Given his past results, he isn’t likely to get GMs sniffing around in 2017-18.
And a lot of that just straight up doesn’t apply to Wotherspoon. He hasn’t been a great NHL defenceman, but he certainly isn’t as bad as Bartkowski. If he is too good for the AHL and is ready to graduate to the NHL, it seems like a waste of time to put him in a situation where he won’t be playing.
That’s a problem because the one thing that has dogged Wotherspoon is his lack of NHL experience. The Flames couldn’t find a way to give him big league minutes for various reasons. He’s looked ready to make the jump for the past few seasons, but his NHL appearances weren’t that great. If he needs playing time to become better, how will he accomplish that from the press box? Being the seventh defenceman seems to solve no one’s problem. You’re just upgrading a complete non-factor area.
You really don’t need a good seventh defenceman. A journeyman like Bartkowski works fine in that spot because he can at least play for one game or a minor stretch of time while call-ups and logistics are sorted out. If you have to include him regularly, you may have a problem, but Bartkowski can be a serviceable NHL defenceman for nine minutes every few weeks. It seems beneficial all around if Wotherspoon is at least playing somewhere.
There remains the pertinent point that the Flames could potentially be due for some bad injury luck. The only defender who missed time last season due to injury was Michael Stone, and it was two games for precautionary reasons. The Flames were blessed last year, especially on the back end, with good health. They probably aren’t the first team to work around the gruelling nature of professional contact sports, or just pure random chance, so you can likely expect an injury sometime this year. If you had to choose between Bartkowski and Wotherspoon, the choice seems obvious.
Wotherspoon could do that better, but what’s really the point? You’re keeping a guy who is still young and aching for NHL ice time in the press box, which seems to be the least ideal place for him.
Perhaps here is a solution for that last point. One of the more logical explanations is that Wotherspoon is more than a seventh defenceman, but not that much more. The potential role for him is providing cover for Brett Kulak as a 6/7D. They’ve had the exact same amount of NHL experience (30 games), after all. If you’re planning to use one of them next season in a starting role, it seems wise to have back up who has performed similarly if things go awry.
Kulak is the obvious choice for the 6D/3LD spot. He’s been the go-to for the Flames when they need a replacement, usurping Wotherspoon in this regard. You could probably argue that he didn’t play more last season (given what they were working with, it’s not a skill issue) because of Vegas sniffing around and an injury in the AHL.
But Kulak is in the weird spot where he’s still just inexperienced enough that we still can’t be sure of what he really is, but too valuable to waive and send to the AHL. Who knows what his cap hit will be, but it probably will be cheap enough that other teams will pounce if he’s up for grabs.
And that’s where Tyler might step in. Wotherspoon and Kulak seem to be similar shades of the same thing. They’re both too good for the AHL level, and have mostly been third pairing guys at the NHL level. If Kulak slips up, Wotherspoon goes in. If Wotherspoon slips up, Kulak goes in.
But this rotation role seems suspect. Sure, he’d be better than Bartkowski as a 6D, but is he going to better than Kulak as a 6D? The answer is likely no. Although we haven’t seen enough of either in the past two years to make a sound analytical judgement, the early results favour Kulak. By possession metrics, Kulak’s almost uniformly positive, whereas Wotherspoon bounces around between pretty okay and really bad.
Even if you look at the AHL as a rough litmus test, Kulak (10 points) nearly outscored Wotherspoon (18 points) in 34 fewer games this past season. Over the past two AHL seasons, Kulak has one fewer point in 28 fewer games. Even though offence has never been Wotherspoon’s game (a problem in itself when discussing NHL futures), he just hasn’t been as dominant on both ends of the ice as Kulak has.
The Flames’ personnel decisions over that same time frame speak loads, too. Kulak made the team out of camp both in 2015-16 (in place for an injured T.J. Brodie, but that works both ways for him) and 2016-17. Wotherspoon was waived and reassigned both years. It’s pretty clear who is the favourite, and who is likely to play the majority of the games. It’s unlikely Wotherspoon isn’t anything but a seventh defenceman.
This presents a problem in itself, combined with the above section. If Wotherspoon needs more NHL experience to be good, how is he supposed to get that from the press box? If he’s bad on the ice, how can you justify continually playing him over Kulak? Working on the assumption that Kulak and him will split time seems to be faulty under pressure.
Of course, none of this is for certain. Wotherspoon could be the better player this upcoming season, but it’s just so much more likely that Kulak is the one who fills that role. It would seem on first glance that, given the uncertainty, it would make sense to keep Wotherspoon around, but an honest look at the past two years for both players seems to suggest that the uncertainty isn’t so certain. Kulak is going to be a steady guy for the majority of the games. Wotherspoon could be too, but it is very unlikely that he is either as steady as Kulak or as steady over longer periods of time.
Perhaps this article is a little extra. The answer to the question “why did the Flames qualify Tyler Wotherspoon” is simple: he’s an asset that they had exclusive rights to, so why not. He’s going to be cheap, he fits in the age group, and you don’t want to lose him for nothing, so might as well qualify him and give him on a cheap contract and see what happens. If he’s good, we’re all winners.
Although this makes little sense given the club’s long term plans. Think back to one year ago when the team released a whole lot of decent farm talent (Agostino, Grant, Shore, Elson, etc.). They had some RFA guys who would come cheap that they lost for nothing. But they needed to make room for the next crop of players (Jankowski, Shinkaruk, Mangiapane, Pribyl, etc.) so it was buh-bye other guys. Basically, new guys pushed the issue. Perhaps Kenny Agostino is biting them in the ass, but they can probably live with that.
And you’ll slowly see that happening in the NHL. Kulak and Wotherspoon have pushed their way into the NHL. Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington are likely the next two up. It might be a while down the road, but Valimaki and Adam Fox could be fighting for a spot as early as 2018-19 and 2019-20. Given that NHL contracts are expiring soonish (Brodie, Hamonic and Stone are UFA in 2020), the Flames have the opportunity to seamlessly transition from one great defence into another, but one that is significantly younger and cheaper.
It’s unclear where Wotherspoon will fit into all of this. By now, his ceiling appears to be around 6/7 rather than earlier projections of top four. If he becomes an NHL regular, he’ll likely be passed over by everyone else in the Flames’ prospect arsenal. The sensible thing to do would be to maximize his value and perhaps get a pick or something.
But, again, everyone has a Wotherspoon, as Pike likes to say. There’s a lot of teams who have okay 24-26-year-old defencemen that might be on the verge of being NHL regulars but just not yet. How can you maximize the value of a dime-a-dozen player? The Flames acquired Connor Murphy, Carolina’s Wotherspoon, as a throw-in in the Eddie Lack trade and they just bought him out. He’s now in Minnesota on a $700K contract. Taking him on might’ve given them the 2019 seventh round pick, who knows.
To bring it back to the previous two sections, if there is something about Wotherspoon that makes him worth more than a Murphy, how will he show it? Kulak is likely going to be the more regular player, limiting Wotherspoon’s exposure and, in turn, his trade value, if there was any left. It will still be an unattractive sell if he’s a guy who has shown flashes of promise in about ~30 games of third pairing play.
I really don’t have an answer. There’s no real reason that they brought back Wotherspoon. The Flames aren’t going to find some sort of new player after seven years in the org, and given the state of Flames defencemen, they didn’t need to hope that they would.
The likely answer is that he’ll sit around in the press box, waiting until someone goofs up really badly or gets hurt and then he’ll go and play 12 minutes until everything is normal again. It seems like an inefficient use of time for both player and team.