When you look at the Flames’ prospect pool, it was understandable to think Calgary would take a forward with the 16th overall pick.
After all, they have Brett Kulak, Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington, and Adam Fox already – guys ranging from possibly NHL-ready right now to looking like they have a hell of a lot of upside. Compare that to their forward pool, and sure, there’s Mark Jankowski, and you hope for Morgan Klimchuk or Andrew Mangiapane, but no forward names truly stick out the way they do on defence.
The Flames didn’t add that bluechip forward in the first round. But they did add Juuso Valimaki’s name to that prospective defence group. And that’s, um, that’s pretty special.
Let’s recap the Flames’ defensive situation for this season. They have three NHLers guaranteed in an already impressive top three: Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, and T.J. Brodie. Matt Bartkowski is there, too, possibly; where exactly he’ll play next season isn’t established yet. That leaves three or four NHL spots open, and Kulak and Andersson’s names are being thrown about as two possibilities to fill them in already.
Kylington will probably need another year. Valimaki has stated he thinks he can make the NHL within two seasons, so who knows; there’s no need to rush him, but at the same time, it’s not unheard of for some picks to simply step in right away (and at 6’2 and 204 lbs it’s not like he’s hurting for size, that’s for sure). Fox is the only one you can rule out right away, but if he puts together a sophomore season anything like his historic freshman year, you can bet the Flames will be pulling to get him out of the NCAA sooner rather than later.
Let’s put things this way. If absolutely everything falls into place – which is not likely to happen, but let’s play best case scenario for a moment here – within two years you could see Valimaki, Kulak, Andersson, and Kylington all in the NHL, and Fox playing top minutes in the AHL. That’s a defence that is almost entirely home grown, Hamilton being the lone exception. That’s a defence that’s prepared to shift Giordano, the old man of the group, into a lesser role whenever it becomes necessary.
Let’s go in a different direction. Say only one of Andersson, Kylington, Fox, or Valimaki reaches his potential. All it’s going to take is one of them to to fill out the Flames’ top four – and it’ll probably happen before Brodie is 30 years old. If more than one of them pans out, then we’re talking about top four-level defencemen on the bottom pairing. A big part of Nashville’s Cup run was their defence; the Flames seem set up to follow suit.
Calgary probably needs help to fill out its top four for this season – it’s hard to see them relying on any of these prospects to make the jump to that level immediately, and reportedly, they’re still in on Travis Hamonic – but the future of their defence is extremely bright.
The quality of their defensive prospects compared to everything else also opens the avenue for more deals. You trade from a position of strength to add to a position of weakness. I think it’s probably safe to say Valimaki won’t be traded – not when he was just picked in the first round, not when the Flames had a jersey with his name on it ready for him – and considering how close Andersson is, probably not him, either. Kylington’s stock is likely lower in perception now as he hasn’t been incredible in the AHL, but the Flames have gotten two years of professional play from a teenager without the clock on his ELC even starting, so he may be more valuable in house.
Kulak is perhaps the most NHL-ready of the group, and selling on Fox now would be selling high, with the potential for that coming back to bite. But fact of the matter is, with all of this defensive talent starting to really take form, it’s tough to see everyone sticking around.
At the same time, it’s a strength the Flames can use: whether it comes from having a ridiculously overstacked defence or using some of those players to fill out other holes in the roster, all of these high caliber defensive prospects give Calgary a ton of flexibility.
Two years ago, Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell were relied on as top four defencemen, and an injury to Giordano put Deryk Engelland in the same position. Now, it seems very unlikely the Flames will experience those same defensive woes again.