CALGARY, AB -- The roster is smaller, but the decisions aren’t any clearer.
With 11 defencemen remaining in camp with the Calgary Flames, those determined to nab a National Hockey League gig come Oct. 7 know the challenges looming.
“Nothing’s changed since the day I got here, ever since I signed the PTO,” said Ryan Wilson, a free-agent invite and one of four candidates vying for two open spots on Calgary’s roster. “I’m here to make the team. No matter what happens. I just have to make the team and get a contract. That’s my mindset, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
With TJ Brodie (hand) and Ladislav Smid (neck) expected to miss the start of the season due to injury, two positions on Calgary’s blueline have been vacated. Wilson, Brett Kulak, Tyler Wotherspoon and Jakub Nakladal are all vying for the remaining opportunity to stick around.
Wilson holds a significant experience advantage over the other trio. At 28, he’s a veteran of 230 career NHL games. Wotherspoon has 15 under his belt, while Kulak made his NHL debut in Game 82 of the regular season last year. Nakladal, 27, is making his first venture into North American hockey.
The bump in games played doesn’t give Wilson an advantage, though.
“I haven’t really thought of it as an advantage,” said Wilson, the only one of the four currently not under contract. “There’s some good players, good young players. Whether they keep one of them or me, it depends on our play, not the past. Whatever guys they think are going to help the team win are going to play. If I can string a couple more good games, I hope to stick around.”
There’s an opportunity to, at least to start.
Brodie is week-to-week, and is expected out anywhere from three to six weeks. Smid’s timetable places him on the outside until at least mid-October.
It leaves Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, Dennis Wideman, Kris Russell and Deryk Engelland as veterans set to return, opening the door for two more to join the Flames out of training camp.
“Right now, I think our top-4 options are pretty clear with Brodie’s injury, you don’t have to go to Harvard to figure that out,” coach Bob Hartley started. “It’s still the battle of who is going to be that last defenceman on opening night. We can debate all we want who is going to be the seventh D, but the seventh D will not be playing. It’s who is going to be the sixth defenceman.
“That’s where the Dougie Hamilton has been put on hold for now -- who’s going to marry Dougie to who is going to play with Engelland. Just like The Bachelor, it’s week to week.”
There’s no obvious front-runner at this stage.
Nakladal, injured in a pre-season game against the Colorado Avalanche last week, is hoping to claim one of the vacancies for himself. Deemed healthy and a candidate to play Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets, Nakladal survived the latest round of cuts Sunday and feels that much closer to starting the season in Calgary.
“It’s a nice feeling that I’m still here. If I’m going to stay here,” said the Hradec Králové, CZE native, who had three goals and 15 points in 50 games with TPS Turku in Finland last season. “I’m going to have to work hard every practice, every game, because I know that if I stay here it’s not for sure that I’m going to be here all season.”
Kulak, the youngest of the bunch, isn’t about to concede.
“You’ve got to have in your mind that you’re here for a reason,” he said. “You’re not here to admire all the guys who’ve been in the NHL for the last few years. You’ve got to understand that you belong. That’s when you play at your best.
“I feel ready. I’ve worked all summer and it’s my opportunity now. I’ve got to work my best everyday and take advantage of it.”
The rookie feels confident.
So too does the veteran, who is staying cool as he’s hoping to remain in Calgary for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve been playing this game for a long time, so you can pretty much block everything out if you put your mind to it,” Wilson said. “You can’t be nervous, there’s no time to be nervous. You’ve got to play the game and try to remember to have fun because that’s when you are at your best.”