We all knew that when Darryl Sutter took the reins behind the Flames bench, there would be changes. He came into the job promising big things, speaking of “unfinished business”, and promising the product on the ice would improve.
Now, 14 games into his tenure as head coach, the Flames have gone 5-8-0 and have fallen five games below .500. Their chances of making the playoffs are essentially zero, and the organization and fanbase are searching for answers alike.
The Valimaki snub
Even the most diehard and optimistic fans have known for the past little while that this season is over. The Flames are going to be a lottery team and while that was tough to digest after so much promise entering the year, most have come to terms with this fact.
It’s this fact that makes Sutter’s recent decision to make youngsters Dillon Dube and Juuso Valimaki healthy scratches multiple times perhaps even more frustrating than the latest string of losses by the team.
Dube has since returned to the lineup and has played well on the top line with Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm, but Valimaki remains on the sidelines, missing four of the last five games and logging just 14 minutes in the game he did play.
In a lost season, I would argue it makes more sense to get your young players experience, let them work through the growing pains by giving them extra minutes, and at least use the games you have left as development opportunities.
Sutter doesn’t share that sentiment. He’s opted to play Michael Stone and Nikita Nesterov over Valimaki and Oliver Kylington, he’s iced fringe NHLer Brett Ritchie with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and he relies on the fourth line with Joakim Nordstrom and Sam Bennett in key situations. His lineups reflect that of a team that is contending for playoff positioning, not one that is flirting with last place in the division.
However, Sutter is a seasoned, successful NHL head coach. I’m a part-time blogger. I want to think that Sutter knows better than I do, despite how odd his lineup decisions seem to be. Specifically on Valimaki, let’s dive into the numbers to see if he truly deserves to be healthy scratched, and if he is a long ways away from being a full time NHLer, as Sutter has said. All stats are from Natural Stat Trick and are at 5v5.
During the Sutter era, Valimaki has been a middle-of-the-road defenseman for the Flames in terms of possession.
Any player with these types of percentages is almost always doing more good than harm to his team. Valimaki is above the 50% mark in all three metrics, and is really excelling at high-danger where the Flames have had 57% of those chances with Valimaki on the ice. These are excellent possession numbers, and indicate a great player.
His team ranks don’t signal elite play, though, as Valimaki is ranked around the middle among all defensemen who have played games under Sutter. Despite his numbers, other Flames are still faring better. However, he’s still firmly in the top-six, and so far looks like one of the defensemen the Flames should be icing every single night. Nothing here points to Valimaki not playing well enough to be an NHLer at all. In fact, there are tons of NHL defensemen with worse numbers than Valimaki.
Goals and expected goals
Digging into the conversion part of things, it’s a similar picture.
Valimaki certainly isn’t being held out of the lineup because of goal creation. At 5v5, he owns a solid goal differential percentage, ranking second among defensemen. In terms of expected goals, Valimaki ranks fourth at just under 53%, another solid showing. When he’s on the ice, the Flames generate more expected goals, have scored more actual goals, and Valimaki is among the four best Flames defenders in these areas, yet another reason that he’s definitely deserving of a full-time roster spot.
Ah, there it is.
Under Sutter, Valimaki has no points, 11 shots through 10 games, just six hits, and six blocks. His team ranks in those categories are near the bottom of the list as well. In fact, every single defenseman has at least one 5v5 point under Sutter… except Valimaki.
Who’s to say whether this is the reason he’s being scratched, but not making a dent on the scoresheet has definitely been a way players have gotten scratched in the past, and by Sutter specifically. Sutter has scratched key team members in key games, including Jake Muzzin and Mike Richards in the playoffs.
What’s best for development?
It’s hard to say a player will develop better watching from the press box as opposed to playing in games. Every now and then though, good players can really benefit from spending some time watching from above. Even Gaudreau was scratched in his rookie season, and he responded by putting up 64 points and ending the season as a finalist for the Calder Trophy.
Sutter has scratched defensemen in the past, the aforementioned Muzzin, and Alec Martinez in his sophomore season as well. Maybe this is all part of the plan, a little tough love to keep Valimaki on his toes.
One thing is for certain: the Flames won’t want their best young player sitting on the sidelines for too long. As the Flames fall further out of the race, it’s fair to assume the directive from the top will be to play the youngsters, sit the vets, and prepare for next season. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see a Matthew Phillips call-up soon.
Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images