Last summer, when Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward was helping the Calgary Flames design their AHL affiliate’s roster in the run-up to the 2011-12 season, he envisioned Clay Wilson as part of a deep arsenal of offensive-minded blueliners.
But the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and four months into the campaign, Wilson was shouldering a larger share of the puck-moving load than the brass might have anticipated.
First, Derek Smith – a big-time point producer in the AHL who won a Calder Cup with the Binghamton Senators last spring – cracked the Flames’ roster out of training camp. (He’s currently sidelined with a high ankle sprain).
T.J. Brodie, the Heat’s super sophomore, earned an NHL recall of his own on Nov. 9. The mobile blueliner has played so well, it’s unlikely he’ll be back in Abbotsford any time soon.
Then on Jan. 6, Brendan Mikkelson, who had excelled as a two-way blueliner with the Heat, was traded by the Flames to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“With all the young forwards we have, we needed good defencemen to get the puck out of your end and help them develop,” said Ward, explaining the rationale for amassing all those mobile blueliners in the off-season.
“It hasn’t worked out that way – slowly but surely, we lost what we thought we might have on the back end.”
Ward and the Heat landed some reinforcements last Friday, when the Flames traded Brendan Morrison to the Chicago Blackhawks organization for Brian Connelly. He’s a two-time AHL all-star who is currently second in points among AHL defencemen.
But the Heat can thank their lucky stars Wilson was around to carry the load previously – though they had to weather his absence for two weeks in early January, due to a call-up by the Flames.
Wilson, a 28-year-old native of Sturgeon Lake, Minn., was known as an offensive dynamo when he signed as a free agent with the Flames/Heat last summer. He was second in scoring among AHL defencemen two seasons ago with the Rochester Americans (60 points in 75 games), and he’s currently tied for 16th in AHL blueliner scoring with 23 points in 38 games. He’s currently in Atlantic City, representing Abbotsford at the AHL All-Star Classic. It’s his second straight all-star nod.
“It means a lot,” Wilson said, reflecting on the all-star selection. “They had a lot of great players to choose from, so it feels good.”
As much as Wilson’s personal brand has been built on point production, Ward has been as pleased with the veteran’s attention to detail in the defensive zone. It’s part of the reason that after Heat captain Quintin Laing went down with a concussion last week, Wilson was picked to wear the ‘C’ in the interim.
“It’s the overall package he brings to the table,” Ward said of Wilson. “He’s embraced the defensive side, and while he’s tried to do that, he’s still an all-star, and I think that’s a credit to him.
“Change is tough for all of us in life regardless of our age, but I think it’s tougher for older people. I think he’s trying to embrace how he can play longer in the NHL, as opposed to a shorter stint.”
Wilson affirmed that proving he can play well in his own zone has been his primary focus this season.
“I know it was something they (the Flames) were concerned with, and I think I had the opportunity to show them when I was up there that I could be responsible and play some solid defence,” he said.
“I think my offence will take care of itself, whether I’m playing good defence or bad defence. If I just stick to playing good, solid hockey, I’ll still get the chances.”
As one of the AHL’s elite blueliners, Wilson has positioned himself on the brink of NHL employment – he’s had cups of coffee with the Columbus Blue Jackets (13 games between 2007 and ’09), the Atlanta Thrashers (two games in 2008-09), the Florida Panthers (17 games between 2009 and ’11) and the Flames (two games this season).
Wilson has yet to carve out a long-term spot at the NHL level, but that he’s close at all is a tribute to his perseverance.
After a forgettable senior season of NCAA hockey at Michigan Tech – he posted just seven points in 35 games in 2004-05, after notching 25 points as a sophomore – Wilson strongly considered giving up the game. He’d been passed over time after time in the NHL draft, and roster spots in the pros were at a premium with the NHL lockout in full swing. Wilson wondered if it might be easier to find somewhere to put his business degree to use.
He ended up casting his lot with the Muskegon Fury, a minor-pro team in the now-defunct United Hockey League. The Fury won the league title that year, and the playoff run helped launch Wilson’s career. He landed an AHL contract with the Grand Rapids Griffins the following season.
Wilson is still spending most of his time in the AHL, but he was encouraged to see Smith – at age 27, past the point of being considered a “prospect” – make an impact this season at the NHL level.
“It just shows that in the right situation with the right team, if you can get a chance, you can possibly stick up there (in the NHL) and do well,” he said. “I’m still holding out for that, and hopefully it happens. I’ll just work on getting better every day.”