CALGARY, AB -- The kids don’t necessarily know how long they’ll remain on the roster, but the youth of the Calgary Flames is trying to make the most of the experience they’re getting.
With a wave of injuries that have struck the likes of veteran forwards Jiri Hudler (lower body), David Jones (upper body), defenceman Dennis Wideman (upper body) and goaltender Karri Ramo (lower body), plenty of opportunity has abounded for the likes of AHL call-ups Ben Hanowski, Joni Ortio and Tyler Wotherspoon.
“It’s important because it’s an audition,” said coach Bob Hartley, whose rebuilding Flames sit more than a dozen points behind the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. “It’s a great audition for them. Right now, we’re playing teams that they’re fighting for a playoff spot; they’re fighting to get a better spot in the top-eight. We’re living a playoff atmosphere. They might not feel the pressure, but still the games mean something. I think it’s great for our learning process.”
Wotherspoon knows what’s at stake with his stint.
Though at any moment his audition could end and he could find himself back with the Abbotsford Heat the 21-year-old is cherishing the opportunity to skate in his first NHL stint.
“You’ve got to savor it but you have to also live every day like it’s your last,” Wotherspoon said. “You’ve got to work hard, skate hard, play hard and try to impress the coaches to keep yourself up here. That’s what I’m doing, working my tail off to try to stay here as long as possible.
“I got a little taste at training camp and this has been an even better experience. All of it helps, the experience, to be prepared for next year. It gives me a leg up to know what to expect.”
It’s an experience not unlike the one Hanowski received to close out his 2012-13 season.
After being acquired alongside Kenny Agostino and the first round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft (Morgan Klimchuk) for Jarome Iginla last March, Hanowski signed his first pro deal and managed to skate in five games with the Flames.
That opportunity, and the one he’s enjoying now, has helped dictate what the 6-foot-2, 210-pound winger has to do to become a fixture in Calgary’s lineup.
“It reaffirmed it pretty quick,” Hanowski said. “Guys are fast. Guys are smart, hard to play against. It’s a good test and a good eye opener for me to see what it takes to get to that level.
“I’m trying to pick up some new things. I’m just trying to keep learning and find a role for myself to be successful and help the team.”
Ortio’s chance to tend the twine for the Flames is a little more unique than the opportunities presented to Wotherspoon and Hanowski. The 22-year-old goaltender could stick in Calgary for the foreseeable future.
Flames president of hockey operations and acting general manager Brian Burke opted to option fellow netminder Reto Berra to the Colorado Avalanche at the NHL Trade Deadline, fetching a second round pick in return.
The move, coupled with Ramo’s injury, has opened the door for Ortio to serve as Calgary’s primary starter for the better part of three weeks.
“In my head, I’ve known it for quite a bit now that I can actually play at this level. It was just a matter of getting the chance and proving it,” said Ortio, who is 4-4-0 with a 2.16 goals against average and .906 save percentage in eight starts -- five of which came consecutively. “For sure, it gives me confidence every night that I know I can play at this level.
“Being up for the time I’ve been up and playing these games, it’s a great learning experience. It’s not just that. I’m still trying to play to my best and trying to win games.
“It’s like putting money in the bank right now, getting all those consecutive starts.”
And an advanced audition to be a permanent fixture on the team next season.
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