Parker Wotherspoon and Brandon Carlo knew they had a chance to do great things when they arrived for camp back in August.
The Tri-City Americans rookie defensemen had spent time with the team last season, and even got some ice time. With a young team this season, they knew they would have a chance to earn a decent amount of minutes every game.
What they didnt foresee is being paired with the teams top two defensemen Justin Hamonic and Mitch Topping and playing a key role on the penalty kill, which was near the top of the Western Conference most of the season.
They have played a lot of minutes for first-year players, said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. Of course, Spoons is only 16. We got a really good glimpse of them when they came in last year. Both played well. We had high expectations. I think its fair to say they have exceeded those expectations with the way they have adjusted to the league and the way they have improved. They play like veterans.
The Americans will need that level of play when they take on the top-ranked Kelowna Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. The best-of-7 series begins Saturday in Kelowna.
Wotherspoon, a 6-foot, 170-pound native of Surrey, British Columbia, has been paired with Hamonic most of the season. With two goals and 16 assists, he is the highest scoring rookie defenseman since Slovakian Juraj Valach had 30 points during the 2006-07 season.
He is way ahead of where I was when I was a 17-year-old rookie, said the 6-4, 210-pound Hamonic. He has done a good job all year. He has adjusted well to the speed of the game and the size of the players. Im proud of how far he has come. Some of the plays he makes out there, I have to watch on video. Its impressive. And then you remember he is just 16.
Wotherspoon, the younger brother of former Portland Winterhawks defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon (now with the Calgary Flames), knew the ins and outs of the WHL before he arrived, but admitted there was an adjustment period.
I struggled a little at the beginning, Wotherspoon said. Hamo helped with keeping me in line all year. I got comfortable pretty quick knowing I have him watching my back. We rely on each other so much. We dont go D-to-D too much. We play against the top lines and we keep the gap tight.
Hamonic and Wotherspoon have played so well together that Hiller matches them up against the oppositions top line.
Him and Hamo have grown great chemistry, Hiller said of Wotherspoon. Hamo has been a great mentor for him. Hamo is very responsible defensively and Spoons is an offense player more than anything. Hamo has held him accountable to play good defense, too, and that has helped his game. I have to give Hamo credit for helping him along.
The Topping-Carlo pairing is just the opposite of Hamonic and Wotherspoon.
Playing with Carlo has been a treat, Topping said. He has a lot of skill and good hockey sense. He has gotten better every game, from how he handles the puck to how he matches up with guys. Its awesome to see his progress. He complements me. If I decide to jump up in the rush, he stays back. Its the same chemistry on both lines.
Carlo, 17, said the pairing has worked well for him.
I can cover for him when he wants to get up in the play and be more offensive, Carlo said. When we get back to the bench, he can help me with what I struggle with to be more effective throughout the game.
Added Hiller: That has been a good fit too. Mitch moves the puck really well, gets in the play and somebody has to be back there to break up the rush coming the other way from time to time. They have really fed off of each other.
Carlo, a 6-5, 185-pound native of Colorado Springs, Colo., has three goals and 10 assists this season, but Hiller said the offensive part of his game will come around.
Brandon just defends so well, but (offense) is something he is going to have to add to his game, Hiller said. I like that he doesnt sacrifice good defense for trying to be more offensive.
The Americans finished eighth in the Western Conference with a 29-33-4-6 record. They allowed 224 goals, which ranked 10th in the WHL for fewest goals allowed.
Part of that has to do with goalie Eric Comrie, part to the defense, and part to the penalty kill, which finished eighth overall at the end of the season, but was ranked fourth most of the year.
Carlo pairs with Hamonic on the PK, while Topping and Wotherspoon rotate in. Its a big responsibility for a rookie, but both have embraced the job.
I do like the PK, Carlo said. Its exhilarating to go out and play against their top players. I feel like me and Hamo do a good job together out there.
I love the PK, Wotherspoon added. Its not an opportunity players my age get. This year has helped me grow with a lot of ice time.
Their special teams effort drew praise from Hamonic.
They are both smart hockey players, Hamonic said. They have picked up the details really quick and that has been huge for us out there.
While Topping is finishing his WHL career this season, Hamonic has one more year to play. Carlo is hoping to be paired with Wotherspoon in the future.
He is so skilled and we have a good understanding of each other, Carlo said. I look forward to playing with him. I feel we can do some damage together.
Hiller feels the same way.
Thats why the future is so bright, Hiller said. You see all of our young players, especially them, playing big minutes and important roles now.