The Flames don’t exactly have the best record of, say, waiting until Christmas morning before opening their toys. In fact, they’ve been more like ‘eat every chocolate of the advent calendar on Dec. 1’ when it comes to prospect patience in recent years.
You know what? I don’t blame them. It has paid off so far. It might have seemed insane to imagine during the dark crevices of the 2012-13 seasons, but some of the most memorable moments of the past Flames years have come from teenagers. However, in recent history, the Flames have not played a teenaged defenseman the season immediately following his draft, but that might change this year.
Conventional hockey wisdom states that defensemen take longer to mature than forwards and taking a look at the list of NHL dmen aged 18 or 19 in their rookie seasons since the year 2000, it becomes clear that playing in the NHL out of junior isn’t exactly common.
Although, it certainly isn’t unheard of. In fact, in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, in Valimaki’s exact draft slot at 16th overall, was Jakob Chychrun, who played 68 games and scored 20 points last season (albeit, on a rather dreary Arizona squad).
Soon after he was drafted, the consensus was that Valimaki would return to Tri-City shortly after Flames main camp, play at the World Juniors, and hopefully improve on his stellar 61 points in 60 games played season from last year. Any real discussion about his time on the Flames roster would surely wait until next September at the earliest. Right? Well, I am increasingly curious if that is the case.
In what has been an arduous summer for the young Finn, Valimaki has played in the World Junior Summer Showcase, Flames development camp, Penticton Young Stars Tournament, Flames training camp, and now Flames preseason. That’s a lot of hockey for anyone, especially for a player who has never played more than 60 games in a single season. Surely, the workload Valimaki has endured has to be considered by Flames decision makers as they decide how the roster will look when the calendar flips to October.
The case for keeping him
Well, first of all, there is currently a spot for him. In theory. As has been well-publicized this offseason, the moment the Flames re-signed Michael Stone the roster was essentially set, save for two, maybe three, spots. One of the spots tentatively available was the third pairing, left-shot defender slot, to be paired with Stone.
Most (rightly) assume, given waiver-eligibility and past track record, that Brett Kulak has a pretty firm grasp on that spot. However, if the Flames are willing to cast off Wotherspoon and Bartkowski to waivers (and then presumably Stockton), they would be able to softly debut Valimaki by interchanging him with Kulak. In this scenario, Valimaki’s workload is tempered and Kulak is still able to earn a spot on the opening day roster. If it becomes apparent that Valimaki can’t hack it, then he heads back to the WHL and everything is as was planned.
Allowing both Kulak and Valimaki to rotate through the third pairing, for the first 15 games of the season or so, would be a way of accurately gauging where Valimaki’s at, and whether or not he would be suitable to play this season given the opportunity available to him. Using a Kulak and Valimaki rotation, to me at least, is a way of not playing Valimaki to death this year, while still earning him valuable NHL practice time, if such a thing exists, and getting him acclimatized to the best league in the world.
Ordinarily, I would think that the thought of Valimaki missing any game action at this stage in his career would seem like extraordinarily stupid asset management, but, given the circumstances of his summer, I wonder if easing him into some NHL game action would actually benefit his development. Provided, of course, that his play doesn’t fall off a cliff in the upcoming preseason games.
There is an angle to this that goes something like: “If he’s good enough, he should play. Who cares about contract status, or age, or anything else?!” It is a somewhat compelling argument for a team that is supposed to be trying to push beyond the first round of the playoffs this year. If Valimaki outplays his competition and gives the Flames a better chance to win than Kulak, Wotherspoon, or Bartkowski, then why shouldn’t they play him?
The case for sending him back
This case is far simpler to make: why rush it? The Flames don’t have a pressing need for another NHL defender, unlike the winger and centre needs that thrust Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, and Matthew Tkachuk into the NHL in years prior. Valimaki, even if he’s a slight upgrade from Kulak or Wotherspoon, will not be an upgrade on Brodie or Giordano, so he likely will play exclusively on the third pairing. Is that worth risking his development for?
It is rare for teenagers to make an impact in the NHL and throwing him into the league when he’s not ready risks stunting his development. Even if he stays up with the Flames, it will likely only be for an audition, so why disrupt his season? Allow Valimaki to return to his WHL club and begin preparations for his season where he’ll be counted on to be a key contributor rather than as a marginal player with the Flames.
On top of all of this, returning him to the CHL removes even the temptation to burn a year of Valimaki’s entry-level contract, something that the Flames have done with Monahan, Bennett, and Tkachuk in recent seasons.
Clearly, returning Valimaki to junior after preseason is the more conventional move and one that I think most Flames fans would at least reluctantly agree with. However, the possibility of seeing how Valimaki fares in the NHL while still being able to protect his development is surely a tempting option for Flames management. If Valimaki’s play continues to be as steady as it has been up to this point in preseason, he is going to make it very difficult for Brad Treliving to banish him to the WHL before opening night.
What do you think? Where should Valimaki be when the season starts? Let me know in the comments!