The biggest Flames news last week was the unveiling of players' new numbers. There are the newcomers (Mason Raymond gets #21, Jonas Hiller #1, Brandon Bollig #25, and Deryk Engelland gets honoured with Reto Berra's former #29), some random shuffles (David Jones gets Blair Jones' old #19, and Ladislav Smid gets Kevin Westgarth and Tim Jackman's #15), and the prospects.
Typically with prospects, you'll see them start off with higher numbers. David Wolf, for example, was given #45. Sven Baertschi started life as a Flame with #47, but with Derek Smith's departure, he gets his old junior number of 27. And then there's Tyler Wotherspoon, set to start his second year as a pro, who suddenly goes from #56 to his old junior number, 26.
Now, a young guy having a low number doesn't automatically mean he's going to be on the team. While Sean Monahan was immediately given #23, Corban Knight received #10. Johnny Gaudreau may well make the team out of camp, but he still appears to have #53 as opposed to the #13 many of us expect he'll switch to.
But let's flash back a few years to revisit the beginning of TJ Brodie's NHL career. In his first pro-season, Brodie impressed right away, and a really good pre-season got him a spot on the team. He played three games with the Flames, looked lost, was healthy scratched, and eventually sent down to spend the rest of the season in the AHL. This was when he had the training camp (and Penguins fan-infuriating) #66. Come the next training camp, he suddenly had #7.
Now, Brodie didn't make the team out of camp. But just a month into the season, Anton Babchuk got injured, and Brodie was called up to replace him. He never looked back, and was an NHLer from there on out.
Wotherspoon's path is already a little different. He didn't make the team out of training camp, and instead put together a pretty solid pro debut in the AHL. But injuries struck the Flames, as they do, and eventually, in March, Wotherspoon was called up to replace Dennis Wideman, who was done for the season. He started out modestly, with game times of a little over 10 minutes (notably more than the other call ups, Chris Breen, Chad Billins, and Mark Cundari, really got), but he continued to impress.
Wotherspoon ended up with three games in which he had about 17 minutes of playing time, and they were three of his best games of the year. He ended up looking better than Wideman. He played 14 games before he himself succumbed to injury, but if he hadn't, he would have gotten another six games in: about a quarter of a full NHL season. As a recently-turned 21-year-old.
By this time next year, it wouldn't be surprising if Tyler Wotherspoon was a full-time NHLer. Craig Conroy and Brian Burke really like him:
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And the Flames, without much in the way of defence prospects or defencemen, period, have a spot that's basically his for the taking.
Calgary only has six veteran defencemen under contract. Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie are the de facto top pairing (although after beyond stellar performances last season, they've earned it). After them there's Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid, and Deryk Engelland.
The Flames may sign a lingering free agent defenceman, although there aren't too many to choose from (Michael Del Zotto, Jamie McBain, and Raphael Diaz are interesting, relatively young names, though). Or they may decide it's Wotherspoon's spot.
If it's Wotherspoon's, then who sits? He can't sit: either he plays in the AHL or NHL, but he needs to play. Giordano and Brodie aren't in danger of losing their spots, and neither should Russell. Wideman (the only Flame with a cap hit over $5 million, for the record) played well last year before his injury, but was demoted to the bottom pairing before his season ended. Smid had one of his worst seasons in recent history. Engelland is the worst of the bunch, but the Flames signed him for a reason.
Or maybe Wotherspoon will follow Brodie's path: start the year in the AHL, and take over as soon as the first injury strikes.
No matter what, though, Tyler Wotherspoon will probably be in the NHL sooner rather than later. He doesn't show the scoring prowess Brodie did, but he did show impressive defensive smarts, especially for a young kid in his rookie pro season. If he makes the NHL, he'll either have to wait for someone to get injured, or he'll have to unseat them - and keep them unseated. It's a tall order, but if any of Calgary's defensive prospects are going to do it, it's going to be him.