The Calgary Flames have been remarkably good this season despite having made few major changes to their roster after last season. They have also been very lucky—having suffered few injuries to their key players, and having their whole team shut down while COVID ravaged their roster. While the Flames have had to do some rotation to their forward group, rotating around their bottom eight forwards, their blueline has been almost identical from the start of the season to now.
Through 59 games, the Flames have gotten a grand total of 62 minutes from Michael Stone and 116 minutes from Juuso Valimaki. That’s it. They have also seen their pairings be almost exactly the same all season. Rasmus Andersson has played exclusively with Noah Hanifin, and outside of the early part of the season and the current injury, Oliver Kylington has played with Chris Tanev while Erik Gudbranson has been paired with Nikita Zadorov. Stone has been the Flames’ seventh defenceman while Valimaki was sent down to Stockton earlier this year.
Now that the Flames have had their first injury scare on the blueline in Kylington’s lower body injury, the Flames were forced to call up a player for insurance. It was Connor Mackey, not Valimaki.
To many, this was a surprise given Valimaki’s high pedigree and NHL experience, but to those who have seen the Stockton Heat play this season, it was not. Both play the same side on the blueline, both are waiver exempt, but one has been substantially more successful than the other. Mackey has been the best Heat defenceman all year, and among the best in the AHL. He has earned this shot.
How did the Flames get here?
The Flames signed Mackey as an undrafted college free agent from the Minnesota State University (Mankato) following his senior year where he put up 24 points in 36 games. Going into his first season in 2020–21, expectations were sky-high from the rookie, with both GM Brad Treliving and captain (at the time) Mark Giordano praising him for his play through training camp.
However, after putting up one assist in three games, Mackey was down to Stockton for almost the entirety of the season. There, his game improved steadily, and his numbers skyrocketed. He ended the year with the Heat with 16 points in 27 games as a rookie, good for fourth on the team and first among defencemen.
By contrast, Valimaki was a highly touted first-round pick out of the WHL in 2017. The Finn was over a point-per-game in his final two seasons with the Tri-City Americans and was looking to make an immediate impact in Calgary. He ended up playing 24 games with the Flames in his first year and put up three points in the time, but spent more time in Stockton, where he had 14 in 20 games.
However, a major knee injury sustained during pre-season training kept him off the ice for the entire next season. Valmaki came back to Calgary for the 2020–21 year and put up 11 points in 49 games. Not bad for the rookie. It looked like he was the next big thing on the Flames’ blueline. In fact, the Flames felt so strongly about Valimaki’s development path that they declined a trade that would bring Mark Stone to Calgary in 2019 because Ottawa insisted on the inclusion of Valimaki. Of course, there were other factors at play like the ability to re-sign Stone, but this was the most public sticking point.
This year, the hope was that Valimaki would finally take another step forward and slide into the Flames’ top four. However, he struggled through training camp and Kylington emerged as the Flames’ defenceman of choice. Valimaki spent some time in the lineup, but more time in the press box before being sent down to Stockton this season.
Mackey and Valimaki in Stockton this season
This year in Stockton, both Mackey and Valimaki have seen their fortunes take different directions. Mackey has 31 points in 47 games, good for tenth in the entire league in points among defencemen, while Valimaki has 12 in 22 games, good for third in points-per-game among Heat defencemen.
Mackey’s season has been remarkably consistent, with just one six-game stretch where he did not hit the scoresheet. He has scored in all situations, and per Pick224, over 75% of his points have been primary.
By contrast, Valimaki’s season is far less consistent. He started off well, but went through a stretch of nine games on the ice where he did not record a single point and went -9. He missed five games with a lower-body injury due to a high hit from Darryl Sutter’s son Brett Sutter. When he came back to the lineup, Valimaki took a three-game suspension for making contact with a referee during a skirmish with Sutter. Not good.
However, he’s slowly picking it up again, having put up two assists and a +3 rating in his last four games. His ice time has increased as well, hovering in the ballpark of 20 minutes per night, but he has been playing typically on the team’s third pairing. Stockton has oodles of depth on the blueline, but Valimaki should be too good for the AHL at this point of his career. Stockton does have a lot of depth on the back end though, and player usage has been greater than their pairing number may suggest.
What comes next for Mackey and Valimaki?
All things considered, Mackey has clearly been the better defenceman and has earned this call-up and the NHL pay that comes with it, regardless of how long it lasted. It would not be a surprise to see him feature in a game later this season, as the Flames probably want to see what he can bring to the table after some AHL seasoning. Thankfully Kylington’s injury seems to be minor, but perhaps we see Mackey feature at some point.
The bigger question is what happens to Valimaki. It is definitely too early to write him off as a bust or to be calling for a trade for the Finnish blueliner. He has definitely struggled in Stockton, but there is room for growth in his game, especially when you consider all the adversity he’s faced in his career thus far. The Flames have managed to turn Kylington into an exceptional two-way defenceman that there is no reason to think they cannot do the same for Valimaki.
Valimaki has become a bit of a project for the Flames in a way that they probably did not expect when they drafted him. His development path has been all over the place since he was drafted, but the hope is that if he can get into a groove with regular minutes and increased confidence, he could become a solid player for the Flames down the road.
There is a lot of sunk-cost with Valimaki as well, after allegedly being the piece that the Flames refused to move in the Mark Stone sweepstakes in 2019. Having kept him through a deal that would have undoubtedly made the Flames better, at least in the short-term, there is a lot of hope that the team can make this one work.
With Mackey having earned the call-up over him, hopefully this is a moment for reflection for Valimaki to recognize what he needs to do to be successful at the AHL level. He clearly has a lot of talent, and has put it to good use in the WHL and last season with Ilves in Liiga. Maybe this is an opportunity for a bit of a reset for the young defenceman.
For Mackey, this is a huge opportunity to show the Flames that he can go from an undrafted college signing to an NHL defenceman, just like Tanev did seasons ago. If Mackey performs well in practice and keeps doing what he’s doing, he may find himself on the Flames’ blueline more often. Adam Ruzicka earned a role this year from a call-up, and there is no reason to think Mackey cannot do the same.