Heading into the Calgary Flames’ 2021 season, one of the team’s biggest storylines revolved around Juuso Valimaki. With pedigree as a first round draft pick and coming off a dominant stretch in Liiga, expectations were high for him to make the roster and immediately be an impact player. Where in the depth chart he would fall was unclear, but there was little doubt he would crack the roster on opening night.
Valimaki’s current partner on the blueline, Nikita Nesterov, had substantially less hype surrounding him coming into the year. Expected to fight for the sixth or seventh position on the Flames’ blueline depth chart, his play in training camp impressed the coaching staff enough to give him a spot on the opening night roster alongside Valimaki.
Nesterov last played in the NHL in 2017, then played three seasons in the KHL, in which he played a large role for one of the leagues top teams, CSKA Moscow, who won a championship while he was with them.
Likely not the favourite for the job if Oliver Kylington had been at camp from the beginning, Nesterov took his opportunity at an NHL job and ran with it, earning himself a spot on the bottom pair. While it’s still very early in the season, the returns so far have been positive for the new third pairing. Trusted with time at even strength as well as on the penalty kill, they have been difference makers.
Among Flames defensive pairs used so far this season, they lead the pack in a variety of important metrics. That’s not to say they are the team’s best pairing or should be expected to be going forward, but it does show promise for a deep Flames blueline this season.
All data below is taken at 5v5, score and venue adjusted (SVA), courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.
|CF%||HDCF%||xGF%||GF%||OZS %||On-Ice SH %|
The really early results for the duo are very strong. The two defenders spend most of their time in the offensive zone, as they should given most of their shifts start there, and are doing a great job creating chances and maintaining possession. For the bottom pairing, they have outperformed expectations in this regard.
With Valimaki in particular, a few of the details of his game stick out as signs the pairing’s strong play should continue. His ability and willingness to jump in on the rush has really stood out early in the season, as well as his quickness at getting back if those rushes don’t work out. His calmness and poise when dealing with his own mistakes, when they do occur, has been impressive too.
After a few giveaways and a goal against that was deflected in off of him in the first period of the last game against the Canucks, he was much more solid in the following two periods. There was a key play where Valimaki caused a turnover in his own zone, but immediately checked the opposing Canucks forward and ended up getting the puck back for the Flames. He didn’t panic under the pressure of making a blunder, and instead worked hard to recover.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the same pairing, Nesterov has been solid. While his play doesn’t jump out at you, he has been the less hyped but not necessarily less important half to the bottom pairing’s success so far. He and Valimaki seem to have meshed well together to start the season.
High events with the pair
Interestingly, they are by far the most high-event pairing on the team at even strength. The pairing has the highest xGF total, xGA total, Corsi for and against totals, high-danger Corsi for and against, and scoring chances for and against. Regardless of performance, the game is exciting when these two are out, and luckily for the Flames, their performance has been strong so far.
Nesterov has also been jumping into the play in certain situations, and one play jumps out in particular. In the first game against the Canucks, Nesterov took the puck from the offensive blueline and drove straight to the net for a shot. It doesn’t happen every shift, but Nesterov’s maturity allows him to take those opportunities when they present themselves.
On the penalty kill, Valimaki and Nesterov simply being there is in many ways exceeding expectations for the bottom pair. With Travis Hamonic and T.J. Brodie leaving in the offseason, both of last season’s most common shorthanded defensive pairings lost a member.
While Chris Tanev was clearly brought in as a new addition for the top penalty kill, who would end up on the second unit was less clear. If Valimaki and Nesterov continue to play there effectively, that question is answered for the team, and bodes well for the future.
Third pairing poise
All in all, the season is very young and the sample size is very small, but on the whole, the Flames’ bottom pair has been strong. Top prospect Valimaki has looked good, and Nesterov has been a pleasant surprise for many who initially expected little more than taxi-squad quality play out of him.
With Giordano now 37 and not expected to play as many minutes this season, the team can’t be asked to rely on its top pair as much. Having a strong bottom pair that can be relied on would be incredibly helpful for the team if these two can keep it up.
Photo by: Sergei Belsky/USA Today