As we touched upon it in our Sunday Census this week, the Calgary Flames have an interesting predicament ahead. Juuso Valimaki is close returning to the NHL after missing the past two months due to a high ankle sprain. Currently in the midst of an assignment to Stockton, Valimaki was initially chosen to start the season with the big club. Playing in 22 games, Valimaki, who was taken 16th overall in 2017, impressed as 19 year old. Looking as if he would never play a game in the minors, Valimaki’s injury put somewhat of a dent in both the player’s and team’s plans for the rest of the season.
Luckily, the Flames were able to call upon fellow young defenceman Oliver Kylington to fill the role in the lineup. The former second round pick slotted in extremely well on the third pairing with Rasmus Andersson, and has been a part of the lineup for the past 26 games. Kylington has helped the Flames go on an absolute tear over the past two months.
Now this is where the issue comes in. Both players have done enough to stay in the NHL lineup, but unfortunately there is only one spot available. Andersson has solidified his spot on the right side of the third pairing, but the left remains a question mark at the moment. Rumours have pointed towards the team potentially looking to acquire a veteran via trade, but that would be foolish based on both Valimaki’s and Kylington’s production.
So which player should be on the third pairing once things are back to normal? Let’s take a look.
Both players have appeared in less than 30 games this season, so the sample size is small, but still shed some light on their production thus far.
Keep in mind both players are not meant to be jumping off the page in terms of offensive numbers, but both have their positives. Kylington takes the edge in terms of pure points with five, including three goals. He also has benefited from a ridiculously high shooting percentage (23.1%!!), but has only generated 13 total shots on goal. Valimaki on the other hand only has two points, but has been sunk by a poor shooting percentage. Valimaki has been able to generate more shots of net, but not seen any of that translate into points. He has taken more penalties in comparison to Kylington, but it’s not a significant margin.
All in all, not much can be concluded from the numbers here. Sure they seem to sway in Kylington’s favour, but at the same time it’s a limited evaluation of their on-ice impacts.
As we dig a bit deeper, we can see the difference between the two players grow a bit more.
In terms of possession at 5v5, Valimaki has the slight edge. He is an even 50.0% which puts him at 17th on the team, while Kylington averages as a below average possession player; Kylington ranks 20th on the team. Valimaki has also been on the ice for a higher proportion of SCF at 5v5 at 51.6%, putting him at 13th on the team. Kylington ranks 20th again in this category. Kylington gets his only advantage in this category with an edge in HDCF% at 50.5%.
What is interesting about both players is that even though they sport average statistics, they both are given an immense amount of offensive zone starts. Kylington starts 64.8% of his shifts in the offensive zone, while Valimaki starts an even greater portion at 68.8%. This obviously is due to their placement in the lineup, with the top two pairings used more in defensive zone situations. With both players being on the younger side, this is a good strategy to get them acclimatized to the NHL. At the moment, Valimaki has been given favoured for more offensive zone starts.
Overall, Valimaki has a slight edge over Kylington when looking at these numbers. It’s clear that both players have their strengths and weaknesses, but what about when looking at their effect on the third pairing in general?
Impact on Andersson
The real difference comes when we bring in likely defensive partner Andersson into the mix. Since both players will continue to operate on his left side, how both players have played with Andersson is the key determinant.
In just over 222 minutes together at 5v5, Andersson and Kylington sport a 46.6% CF%. In only 157 minutes, Andersson and Valimaki have a slight higher edge in CF% at 47.1%. What is interesting is that Andersson has a higher CF% without Kylington, and a lower CF% when he’s not playing with Valimaki. With Valimaki, he has the better numbers in terms of possession.
SCF% are where the numbers truly fluctuate. With Kylington, the pairing sports a 44.4% SCF% at 5v5, while with Valimaki that number jumps significantly to a 55.2%. The same trend as before is also observed, when we take into affect Andersson without both partners. Andersson is on the ice for more scoring chances with Valimaki by his side, then he is without.
In terms of HDCF%, Valimaki also has the edge. Together the duo sports a 55.0%, while Kylington and Andersson are at 50.7%. As you can also see, kudos to both players as without either of them Andersson’s numbers drop considerably. But evaluating that impact another day.
Evaluating Valimaki and Kylington by looking at how their play as two distinct pairings with Andersson, it is obvious that Valimaki has the edge. He produces more when with Andersson, and Andersson takes a bit of hit when he doesn’t have Valimaki on his left side. The added bonus is that Andersson’s only gotten better with more experience.
Who should it be?
The numbers support the decision: Valimaki should return to the third pairing. It obviously is tough decision to make, as both players have had positive impacts on the lineup. Kylington, long criticized for his mistakes at the AHL level, has greatly tightened up his game and is worthy of a roster spot for a long time to come.
Based on what we have seen so far from Valimaki, it makes sense to bring him back. Obviously this will need to be monitored, as missing time with injury is never easy, especially on a young player finding his NHL footing. What was key at the start of the season was that Bill Peters utilized Valimaki heavily during key situations. From 5-on-3 penalty kills, to holding the one goal lead with the opposing team’s net empty, it’s clear that Valimaki is wise and trusted beyond his years.
He deserves a shot back in the NHL lineup as soon as possible, and it’s probably going to happen sooner rather than later. The Flames have to sort out their third pairing in the coming days, and this of all problems to have, isn’t such a bad one after all.