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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Under the Radar: Still Unsigned, Wotherspoon Could be on the Verge of a Breakout Season

It's not a new topic of conversation. Heck, around Calgary, the amount of chatter this summer about the Flames restricted free agents has left even Pokémon Go in the dust.

But the fresh slant today is I'm not here to talk about Johnny Gaudreau or Sean Monahan. I did plenty of that earlier in the week when I spitballed 10 reasons on why the two star forwards remain unsigned. Instead, the focus is on the blueline and another prospect without a contract for 2016-17, who could also end up being an integral part of Calgary's line-up.

With his entry-level contract expired, the time has come for Tyler Wotherspoon to establish himself as a full-timer NHLer. To say the 23-year-old has had an up-and-down professional hockey career to date would be an understatement.

Since signing with the Flames on March 31, 2013, the native of Burnaby, B.C. has been summoned from the minors eight times including three times last year and four the season prior. Six of those call-ups lasted less than two weeks, four lasted less than one week and in three of them, he never made it out of the press box.

Forty-eight picks after the Boston Bruins selected Dougie Hamilton as the second defenceman off the board in the 2011 draft, Calgary selected Wotherspoon as the 19th blueliner to go.

While Hamilton has been an NHL regular ever since, appearing in 260 regular season games and another 19 in the post-season, Wotherspoon has not. Three months older than the Flames No. 27, he has gotten into just 26 regular season games and six in the playoffs. Hamilton has 36 goals while Wotherspoon is still looking for his first.

While they are two players that have taken completely different paths to the NHL, one wonders if those two roads are about to merge into one on the Flames second D pairing.


Calm Before the Storm

While this has been a hectic summer for Calgary personnel-wise with the new coach, a complete overhaul of the goaltending and new bodies added up front, the one position where there hasn't been any significant changes is on defence.

There is the 'big three' in captain Mark Giordano, the ever-steady TJ Brodie and Hamilton. All three are locked up on long-term deals and will be the foundation on the back end for many years to come.

There's the 'old three' in Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid and Deryk Engelland. All of them are in their 30s and are nothing more than third pairing-calibre at this point.

That leaves the 'other three' in Jyrki Jokipakka, Wotherspoon, and Brett Kulak, as the remaining defencemen with the most NHL experience.

Where things are going to get real interesting is next summer where it's likely that four of the six names just mentioned will no longer be with the organization.

Wideman, Smid and Engelland are all entering the final year of their deals. Meanwhile, an expansion draft looms next June and the best player available for Las Vegas might very well be Jokipakka, who was named to Team Finland for the World Cup.

This is why Wotherspoon's emergence in 2016-17 is pivotal for the Flames and is also a golden opportunity for him. As I see it, there's a very good possibility that the 6-foot-2, 210 pounder could be entrenched in the top four a year from now, playing alongside Hamilton and giving the team a nice lefty-righty combo.

You would think their styles complement each other too. While Hamilton would be the guy that activates and joins the rush as that second wave, Wotherspoon would be the steadying defensive presence, who is the guy that stays back to fend off any quick transitions.


Ready to Stay and Play

Wotherspoon's first shot with the Flames was in 2013-14. With Calgary not in the playoff race, the team had the luxury late in the season of casting younger players in bigger roles to see how they fared. Wotherspoon was a guy who benefitted, averaging over 13 minutes of ice time in 14 games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

Things changed the next season. With Calgary in the throes of a tight playoff race, Wotherspoon could not gain the trust of coach Bob Hartley. Three times he made the long, cross-continent flight from Glens Falls, New York, and three times he never got into a game. It wasn't until his fourth call-up in April that he got into the line-up and that was in game 82 in Winnipeg and was the result of a weary Brodie, Russell and Wideman all staying behind in Calgary to rest up for the playoffs.

Eventually drawing in for Corey Potter, Wotherspoon dressed for six playoff games but Hartley refused to play him any more than he had to. In five of the six games, he saw less than seven minutes of action.

Back in the AHL for a third season last year, having been beaten out for a job on the opening night NHL roster by Kulak, Wotherspoon's play started out alright, but was nothing special -- and blending in isn't going to get you a call-up, you need to stand out.


Resurrecting His Top Prospect Status

After being highly-touted for such a long time, Wotherspoon was in danger of tumbling off the Flames prospect radar altogether when a turning point happened. In the eyes of Stockton coach Ryan Huska, the 180 degree turn in his season came in January after he was benched.

"We healthy scratched him in Iowa. He was playing OK but the urgency and the push that we wanted to see with him just wasn't where it should be and what he was capable of," said Huska. "It was a tell-tale time of his year in regards to how he would handle it and he handled it the right away by making himself better because of it.

"From that point, he was a lot more dialed in. He was a lot more engaged. I think it was just a reminder of how hard he needed to play and work every day."

Moving forward, he got back to being a relied-upon Stockton defender. Not flashy, but dependable.

"From that point on, he was a difficult guy to play against," said Huska. "He had more urgency to his play and because of that, he earned that call-up and from that point on, he played well."


Returned to Calgary a Different Player

His improved play with the Heat led to three separate call-ups where unlike the season prior, he was inserted into Hartley's line-up each time and over the 11 games he accumulated, he averaged over 14 minutes of ice time.

While far from a very big sampling, of all the Flames to play at least 10 games, he finished with the highest SAT% at 53.39. Aka Corsi, that reflects the ratio of shot attempts created versus given up while on the ice at 5-on-5. It's a way to quantify Wotherspoon's contributions beyond his conventional counting stats which were just one assist over that span.

For what it's worth, he passed the eye-test too. He just looked more confident and more assertive on the ice. Off it, you got the sense talking to him that he was more comfortable and after 162 games in the AHL, he had gone from boy to man and had matured into an NHL player.

With three years of pro hockey now complete, Wotherspoon is now waiver-eligible. Gone should be the frequent flyer miles of shuttling back and forth from the farm. Barring a disappointing camp, he should be in Calgary to stay.


Peering Into the 2017-18 Crystal Ball

Looking ahead a year, here are some other internal candidates that could fill out the Flames blueline and take some of those jobs that open up:
  • Brett Kulak is a definite possibility. He showed well in making the opening-night roster last year and playing the first six games. He is about to enter his third pro season so is one year behind Wotherspoon in development. Good at both ends of the ice, I can see the 2012 fourth rounder taking over from Wotherspoon as the guy that shuttles back and forth from the AHL this season. By next year, he could be ready for full-time employment.
  • Oliver Kylington could be getting close by then. Having just turned 19, there is certainly no rush with this player and a couple more seasons in the AHL would be perfectly fine. We'll wait and see much further along his game has come a year from now. One thing for certain, his skating is already NHL-ready.
  • Rasmus Andersson will have a year of pro hockey under his belt. Again though, with the difficulty of the D position, you don't want to rush guys. Letting prospects over-ripen in the minors is by far the smarter approach than rushing them and potentially destroying their confidence.
  • Ryan Culkin is coming off two major injuries but if he can stay healthy and return to the level he was playing at prior to his wrist injury 18 months ago, he could get himself into the mix as a depth option given his experience level compared to the two younger Swedes.
  • Brandon Hickey should be a pro by next year but the best next step for him, should he leave Boston University after his junior season, would be development time in the minors.

As for what the unrestricted free agent class looks like for defencemen in 2017, Kevin Shattenkirk will probably be too expensive if he reaches the open market. Given the money tied up elsewhere on the team including in the big three on the blueline, any free agent signings will need to be affordable also. Karl Alzner is another name that is of interest given his connection to Calgary from his four seasons with the Hitmen, but I can see the Caps re-signing him and I doubt he comes cheap either. Cody Franson is slated to be a UFA again. Two other names to consider as older options are Trevor Daley and Kylington's good buddy Johnny Oduya.

However, ideally for economic reasons as Calgary will be into new contracts for Sam Bennett and Ferland by then and will likely have much more money tied up in goal, the emergence of Wotherspoon as an economical top-four candidate would be ideal.

It's for this reason and the massive turnover forthcoming on the back end that re-signing Jakub Nakladal this summer to a multi-year deal would also make a lot of sense.

Potential 2017-18 Defence Pairings

Giordano - Brodie
Wotherspoon - Hamilton
Kulak - Nakladal


Expect a journeyman to be brought in via trade or free agency to round out the group.


Two-Year Deal Sounds About Right

The qualifying offer made to Wotherspoon would have been for $875,000. Presumably he hasn't accepted it yet as there's been no announcement yet from the team.

If I'm the GM and given the changes that are coming next summer, I'd be trying to sign Wotherspoon to a two-year pact (or maybe even three years). Give him a bit of security, yet not too much, and then re-evaluate where things are at when that contract expires.

A decent comparable even though he plays a different position is Micheal Ferland. Coming out of his entry-level contract last summer, Ferland was in a very similar spot as a guy on the verge of establishing himself as an NHL regular, who was now waiver-eligible. In fact, Ferland's 26 regular season games he was at a year ago when he signed his two-year/$1.65 million deal is the exact same total Wotherspoon is at.

A two-year deal in the vicinity of $1.8 million for Wotherspoon would be my guess.


Final Word

Depending on how Wotherspoon plays in 2016-17, maybe he makes himself an expansion target for Las Vegas, ahead of Jokipakka. The best-case scenario for Calgary is both of them have great years and establish themselves and the one that survives the expansion draft is your second-pairing partner for Hamilton to start 2017-18.

If I'm Las Vegas GM George McPhee, I lean towards Jokipakka based on him being further along in terms of development and experience.

For Flames coach Glen Gulutzan to groom Wotherspoon to be promoted into that second pairing spot a year from now, the ideal work experience for this season would be playing every game on the third pairing, giving him time on the penalty kill, and slowly building up his ice time and responsibility. Meanwhile, Jokipakka plays alongside Hamilton.

While we wait and wait and wait for word on Gaudreau and Monahan signings, don't forget about Wotherspoon. While Monahan's deal should be easier to get done than Gaudreau's, Wotherspoon's deal should be even easier.

If Wotherspoon does end up getting a multi-year deal, it could very well turn out to be a value-signing by the end of it, as is already the case with Brodie's contract. You know that's the outcome Flames GM Brad Treliving is hoping for.



By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.

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