SUNRISE, FL - MARCH 6: Clay Wilson #3 of the Florida Panthers skates prior to the NHL game against the Washington Capitals on March 6, 2011 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
With barely a puff of smoke, the Calgary Flames quietly announced the signing of three players today, Ben Walter, Jon Rheault (re-signed), and Clay Wilson. This isn't the type of headline grabbing news that would ever steal the thunder of the likes of Brad Richards and the prospect stealing big apple bandits--especially when you consider all three have a combined 55 NHL games played (a far cry from Brad's 772), and look to have carved out their niche in the AHL. These are the kind of signings this early into the "frenzy" that only the wide eyed glint of a true homer could will more than a golf clap-- Let's not kid ourselves--for all intents and purposes these are depth players (sorry to burst your bubble, homer), and there's no denying it;
"He is a player our scouts identified during the season last year as someone with very good hockey sense who would significantly add to our depth", "He, too, adds to the depth on our blue line", "someone who can both make plays and finish at the AHL level." as per Jay Feaster on each of the respective signings.
So why then should Flames fans be excited on Day 2 of Free Agency?
The addition of Clay Wilson on the backend for $525,000 for each of the next 2 years may just go down as one of the savviest hockey moves of the off-season, especially when you consider some of the inflated contracts been handed out--He's not the big fish that many were hopeful the Flames would land to make up for the departure of Robyn Regehr but if you look past the brand name value, like your parents tell you to do with Jeans, you'll soon realize that the Flames just acquired a very good defender, who will not just compete for a top 7 spot as Feaster announced after the signing, but realistically challenge for a top 4 role.
Clay Wilson is the case of a player, who no matter how hard he tries, and how much he improves, can never get that opportunity to make his mark at the NHL level. This is an an undrafted player, who was plucked from the UHL to play in Grand Rapids, and over the course of a few seasons became a very formidable offensive-defenseman. In fact, he's never had a Point per average below .50 in all of his 8 AHL seasons (To the guy saying, OH WOW, IT'S THE AHL, I CAN SCORE TONS IN THE AHL, SO WHAT? --slow down Kotalik, I am getting to that) and yet has only played in 31 NHL games, 15 of which came last season for the struggling Florida Panthers (who had a very solid Defensive core). In those late season games, Clay played mostly 5 on 5 (with some scattered PP minutes), but showed a solid work ethic, offensive prowess, and unbelievably great defensive positioning (which is something he's not exactly known for--or maybe rather no one has given him the time of day to witness).
It only takes a quick glance at the stat sheet to realize that Clay didn't light the world on fire in his last stint in the NHL, scoring 5 points in 15 games--but in watching Clay play those offensive numbers might have only been stunted by the system in which Florida was trying to execute under (the now jobless) Pete DeBoer--in a more offensive system, it doesn't take the childish wonderment of Peter Pan or Ilya Bryzgalov to imagine Wilson contributing more than former-Panther, Jay Bouwmeester (who when signed by the Flames, the Panthers had a festival) at a much more affordable (read: reasonable) price tag.
This summer, the United States WC team drew a few curious stares as they announced Clay Wilson would make their team--obviously many felt that this was Dale Tallon (an Advisor on the international team, and GM of the Florida Panthers) doing a solid to one of his players, but on a roster filled with good young talented D-men like Jack Johnson, Cam Fowler, and Kevin Shattenkirk it was Clay Wilson who'd really shine. This obviously wasn't an elite level international squad with many notable holdouts not making the trip, and it showed in the United States' placing, but Wilson used this opportunity to prove that he was good enough to play at this level and should be given a fair chance to do the same at the NHL level.
It's easy to golf clap at this move, and put it on the back burner, but don't be fooled, it's these little under the radar moves that really turn teams around--think about all of the devalued players this team has picked up over the years, and how every once in a while one of them turns into a real star. The jury is still out on Wilson, and he'll have to prove himself and have a great training camp, but there's no reason why this highly skilled player, can't one day join the list of greats who've come from what seemed like nothing. Realistically though--he'll just be a good player, but that's what good NHL teams are compiled of; good players.
For a guy who's now one season removed from being the second highest scoring dman in the AHL (ahead of P.K. Subban) and was buried by the defensive depth of the panthers organization, it's interesting to think that Clay Wilson would even be willing to sign with the Flames--who as Tim Erixon felt, might have a hard roster to break into--but given that this is a 1 way deal, one has to think that Jay Feaster has finally given Wilson the break he's been looking for.