Juuso Valimaki and Oliver Kylington appear to have swapped places.
Kylington has been the main headline of the Calgary Flames’ revamped defense corps this season, and his ascent to the top from being perennially on waivers to start the year and bouncing between the AHL and a seventh defenseman role has been incredible to watch.
Whether Kylington just improved that much over the past offseason or if he deserved a full time lineup spot years ago will never be known, but Flames seem to be applying the same treatment to another young defender, Valimaki.
Valimaki was one of the crown jewels of this team’s prospect pool. He’ll always be known as the player Brad Treliving refused to trade to the Ottawa Senators in a deal to acquire Mark Stone, and so far, Valimaki has not lived up to that hype.
Regardless, the Flames are wasting valuable development time for Valimaki and need to employ a better strategy for him.
Valimaki’s bumpy NHL history
It hasn’t been an easy go for Valimaki in the NHL so far. He made his NHL debut in the 2018–19 season for the Flames, winning a spot in the opening night roster. It was an incredible feat for the young defenseman who was drafted just two years prior. Unfortunately, his first season was cut short due to a high ankle sprain.
After rehabbing and getting back to playing shape, Valimaki suffered a devastating knee injury just a few weeks before training camp opened for the 2019–20 season. This was the year the organization and fans alike expected Valimaki to solidify himself as a regular NHLer for the Flames, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Then, of course, there was the COVID-19 pandemic. Valimaki was hoping to return to the Flames towards the end of the season but the pause dashed those hopes and he was on the sidelines once again. He didn’t play a single NHL game in the 2019–20 campaign.
During the pause, however, Valimaki flashed his skill overseas, absolutely torching the Liiga, the top men’s league in Finland. All signs pointed to the 2020–21 being a major breakout year for Valimaki, and he even felt he could challenge for the Calder Trophy.
He played in 49 of 56 games last season, but trouble started when the Flames made a coaching change, moving on from Geoff Ward and welcoming back Darryl Sutter. Valimaki found himself on the outside looking in, losing his roster spot to veteran Michael Stone and being called out by Sutter as having “lots of growing up to do.” Valimaki’s season ended in the worst way possible: as a healthy scratch more often than not and nowhere close to the Calder Trophy conversation.
This season, Valimaki came back with a vengeance, putting together a solid training camp and starting the season on a pairing with Erik Gudbranson. Valimaki played the first seven games of the year, and since then has not logged a single second of ice time. He’s been healthy scratched for over three full weeks.
How has Valimaki played this season?
It’s no secret that Sutter demands his defenseman to be solid on their end of the ice first. A lot of the issues that Sutter has with Valimaki are likely due to Valimaki’s struggles defending, and since Valimaki put up just one point in his seven games this season, there really wasn’t much to offset poor defending early on.
|Rank among Flames D||6||6||3||7|
The above stats at 5v5 and are sourced from NaturalStatTrick.com. On the surface, Valimaki’s numbers look pretty good this season. He’s above the 50% mark in all major possession metrics, and is above water in expected goals. However, in relation to his peers, Valimaki is near the bottom of the Flames’ rotation, somewhere around the sixth best defenseman on the team. While that is a third pairing spot, it’s not like Valimaki has played extremely well and is getting scratched for no reason.
Looking deeper at his isolated numbers from HockeyViz.com, we see that the Flames have played better without Valimaki than with him, both on offense and defense.
With Valimaki on the ice, the Flames are generating 2% less expected goals than without him. Not a significant difference all things considered. However, defense shows a much worse story.
With Valimaki on the ice, the Flames are actually allowing 6% more expected goals than average, a truly massive step back for a team that has been defensively incredible this season. Without Valimaki, the Flames allow an impressive 14% less expected goals than average, clearly one of the best defensive teams in the NHL.
This is likely the exact reason Sutter doesn’t like to have Valimaki in the lineup. The team’s ability to defend with Valimaki on the ice essentially disappears. Valimaki is a defensive liability so far this season.
To add a bit more context, with Erik Gudbranson on the ice, the Flames allow 1% less expected goals on defense. With Nikita Zadorov on the ice, the Flames allow 29% less expected goals on defense. In the race between Valimaki and Zadorov on defense, it’s not even close right now—Zadorov really is filling the defensive defenseman role exactly as planned.
What should the Flames do with Valimaki?
The reasons for Valimaki’s struggles this season are unknown. He has excelled at every level of hockey he’s played in his whole life, and there’s no question he can still be a regular and impactful NHL defenseman.
Sutter has said that young players that aren’t good enough to be in the lineup need to work on their game in practice. Here’s a quote from Sutter last season commenting on the play of Dillon Dube and Valimaki: “I think (Dube) and Valimaki are the identical players in terms of where they’re at—their minutes don’t go up unless they become better players… You don’t play guys more to help them get better. They have to help themselves get better based on their training, based on their preparation, based on their compete level, not just the skills that they were drafted on.”
It’s clear that Sutter is not of the mindset that young players should play in the NHL for development purposes. If Valimaki wants to come back to the lineup on a regular basis, he’ll need to get better on the defensive side of the game in a big way.
I’m not an NHL coach and never will be one, so my opinion means significantly less than Sutter’s does. The ideal decision in my eyes would be to send Valimaki down to Stockton in the AHL so he can get into some games. Sitting in the press box only helps so much, and Valimaki needs to actually practice defending actual competition to get better.
However, the emphasis is on sending him down being ideal—which it isn’t. It is impossible to do because Valimaki requires waivers to be sent down, and there is no chance he passes through waivers without being claimed.
The Flames are in a tough situation here. At some point, Sutter will put Valimaki back in the lineup. When he does, it’s on Valimaki to absolutely blow the doors off and show why he deserves to be in the lineup over Zadorov or Gudbranson.
It’s not time to #FreeValimaki just yet, but if he can play well in his return to the lineup, whenever that may be, we’ll start beating the drum.
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