The Calgary Flames are going to look like a very different team on opening night this year. Gone are the old core of the Flames which included Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk, and in come Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, and Nazem Kadri to change the dynamic of this team.
And while the team does have a lot of questions still to answer up front, how they will line up, what the power play will look like, and much more, the one thing that does look nearly set is the blueline. Assuming all things being equal, the Flames will likely run with a defence corps of Weegar, Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, Oliver Kylington, and Nikita Zadorov.
The seventh spot will be up for grabs this season, with one of Nicolas Meloche, Denis Gilbert, Connor Mackey, Juuso Valimaki, or the currently unsigned but long-time Flames seventh defenceman Michael Stone, likely taking the spot. The remainder will start the season with the Wranglers, hoping for a spot some time down the line.
The one name on this list that really leaps out is Valimaki, who was expected not only to be an NHLer, but to be a bona-fide stud on the blueline in Calgary by now. Instead, the 2017 first-round pick has struggled to make an impact in the AHL, being passed on the depth chart by Mackey and others in the organization. With such a high pedigree and limited opportunity, it’s hard to see him in the organization when the puck drops in October.
A timeline of Valimaki’s development
Drafted out of the WHL’s Tri-City Americans in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the expectations for Valimaki were sky-high. He put up 61 points in 60 games then followed that up with 45 points in 43 games in his final season in junior hockey.
Valimaki would make the jump to the NHL the following season, playing 24 games with the Flames, recording three points in that time. He also spent 20 games in the AHL with the Stockton Heat, where he had four goals and ten assists. His rookie year—as with most rookie years—was up and down, with flashes of excellence but mostly just an adjustment period to moving to the big leagues.
Despite all the hope of what could be, Valimaki suffered a high ankle sprain and was unable to play the entire 2019–20 season as he rehabbed. He returned to the ice midway through the pandemic season, and played for the Finnish club Ilves, putting up 19 points in 19 games and was among the best players in the entire league that year.
He then added 11 points in the shortened NHL season with the Flames to cap off the year. A bit of a slowdown from Valimaki, but not something to be surprised by.
This past season, Valimaki struggled to earn meaningful minutes in the NHL. He only featured in nine games for the Flames, adding two assists, and spent the rest of the year with the Stockton Heat, where he had 18 points in 35 games—a far cry from what should have been expected of him as a first-round pick. He played mostly in a third pairing role with Ilya Solovyov in his time with the Heat. Not great at all.
Valimaki has tumbled down the Flames’ depth chart. Once penciled in as an NHL defenceman, this season has seen him fall below Connor Mackey on the call-up list, and it’s hard to imagine him really making the jump up to the next level. Remember, Valimaki was once the player that was wanted by the Ottawa Senators in the Mark Stone trade, but the Flames chose to keep him.
Different problems in different scenarios
Here are the problems that the Flames face with Valimaki this season. First, and perhaps most importantly, he has simply not panned out to even be an NHLer at this point. His point production put him third in points-per-game among Heat blueliners last season, with just a smidge over a half-point-per-game pace. This was almost identical to career AHLer Andy Welinski last season, and a good ways behind Mackey.
To make matters worse, in the playoffs, Valimaki recorded just two assists in ten appearances for the team. He also was one of only four players to finish with a negative plus-minus. Really not great that he wasn’t able to elevate his game when it mattered most. This does not bode well for his future in Calgary.
But let’s say Valimaki comes out and has a really great camp. The Flames are already pretty set on defence, with MacKenzie Weegar, Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin, and Chris Tanev making up the team’s top four. Then you have Oliver Kylington and Nikita Zadorov making a good deal of money each the fill in the bottom pairing. It’s hard to see Valimaki able to burst through those six. Best case scenario he ends up as the team’s seventh defenceman.
In this case, we reach problem number two. It probably doesn’t make sense to keep Valimaki in this role unless they think he will get regular minutes. Per CapFriendly, Valimaki’s cap hit is $1.55M this season, more than double the NHL league minimum of $750K. For a team expected to be tight to the cap, every dollar spent on players adds up and leaves less room for tinkering at the NHL Trade Deadline in the spring. Unless the Flames really want to see Valimaki get into a number of games at the start of the season on a rotational basis, it’s hard to see him staying up with the team for an extended period.
Finally, if the Flames want to send him down we reach problem number three: Valimaki is not waiver-exempt. What that means is that if they want to send him down to the Calgary Wranglers this season, he will need to pass through waivers, allowing another team the opportunity to claim him for free.
A high-pedigree first-round pick has a good deal of value even if he hasn’t panned out to this point. Another team may look at him as a potential project worth taking on. With his numbers in Ilves a couple seasons back plus being a decent blueliner in Stockton last season may be enough for another team to take a chance on him for no cost at all.
This puts the Flames in a pretty tough spot. To make room for Valimaki would make them a worse blueline, but to keep him and work to make him better in the AHL may end up costing them him in the process. It becomes harder and harder to see him in Calgary at the start of the season.
What is Valimaki worth on the market?
The most likely scenario is probably to see him moved out in a trade. The problem is that on his own, his value likely isn’t much. A point-per-game AHL defenceman has marginal value, but add in the size and him being a first-round pick definitely adds a good chunk of value.
The closest comparable trade that has happened is likely the Olli Juolevi trade in 2021 which sent the 2016 first-round pick to Florida for Noah Juulsen and Juho Lammikko. The former spent most of the season in the AHL, while the latter played 75 games for the Canucks, putting up 15 points. Not bad depth adds, but both players combined don’t add up to nearly what the Canucks expected from Juuolevi when they drafted him.
Do not expect the return for Valimaki to be much at all if the Flames do end up trading him. While a team like the Seattle Kraken or Buffalo Sabres have the cap room and defensive need to be able to add Valimaki, they know that there is a very good chance that he comes available for free on the waiver wire come the end of training camp. This may force GM Brad Treliving to keep Valimaki on the main roster longer than expected in order to move him away for a return.
What comes next for the Flames and Valimaki?
This feels like the summer of bidding adieu to first-round picks for the Flames. Having already lost Tkachuk and Monahan, it seems like Valimaki will be one more first-round pick of the organization that will be moving on to a new home this season. It may be for the better for him, allowing him to really get an NHL look at a team with a less deep blueline, and get a fresh start for his career in a new organization.
Valimaki has a ton of talent in him, and is clearly a very driven player who wants to be an established NHLer. It just simply has not worked out here as well as anyone would have hoped. At the end of the day, if the Flames can make it work for him in Calgary, that is always the best case scenario, but if not, we wish him nothing but the best.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire