Juuso Valimaki is knocking on the door. Calgary’s 2017 first round pick has generated a lot of buzz over the last few months, stoked most recently by his performance at development camp. Entering his 20-year-old season, it’s almost certain Valimaki will play professionally, whether it be in the NHL, AHL, or both. Where he plays, and for how long, presents the Flames with three options, all of them good.
HE MAKES THE TEAM OUT OF CAMP
If you ask Valimaki, this is the only option he’s looking at.
“It’s pretty bright in my mind that I want to take a spot with the big club, so that’s kind of all I’m focused on,” Valimaki told me at development camp.
“No going back to junior anymore. That’s the plan, to play some NHL games. We’ll see how many that will be but obviously even if I get sent down (to the AHL) that won’t be the last decision of the year. I’m just more focused on doing my work and doing everything I can every day to prove that I’m ready for the NHL.”
Those are words Flames fans want to hear from a highly touted prospect, and the opportunity is there to make it a reality. Most importantly, there’s a conceivable spot open on Calgary’s blueline, because the third pairing is anything but set in stone.
The Flames went with Brett Kulak on the left side of their third pairing for most of last season, and he did a nice job. However, if Valimaki proves in training camp and the preseason he’s ready for prime time, and demonstrates he’s an upgrade on Kulak, Calgary won’t hesitate plugging him into an opening day spot.
It’s an interesting possibility to consider, especially with Rasmus Andersson conceivably pushing Michael Stone on the right side of that same pairing. If earned on merit, what Flames fan wouldn’t be jacked to see a Valimaki-Andersson duo, both now and going forward?
There’s really no downside to Valimaki making the team out of camp. It means the organization’s top prospect is ready to start contributing, it adds additional blueline depth at the NHL level, and comes at an entry-level salary. Turning 20 in October, Valimaki would join names like Aaron Ekblad, Olli Maatta, and Brandon Carlo as defencemen to make the NHL at such a young age.
HE MAKES THE TEAM LATER IN THE SEASON
As exciting as seeing Valimaki in a Flames jersey starting in October would be, it’s just as realistic he starts his professional career with the AHL’s Stockton Heat. And, if that’s the case, Valimaki’s first recall could be his only one, similar to the early stages of TJ Brodie’s career.
Brodie’s first NHL season was 2011-12, but he didn’t start that year with the big team. Instead, Brodie was one of Calgary’s earliest AHL assignments and started the year in Abbotsford before getting recalled early in November. He’s never looked back since, which is a plausible trajectory for Valimaki.
There’s nothing negative in this scenario, either. Starting the season with Stockton would give Valimaki time to adjust to pro hockey in a less pressure-packed environment. It would also likely mean the Flames are confident in their NHL blueline to start the season and thus comfortable in slow playing Valimaki.
Once they feel Valimaki is ready for the jump, and the opportunity arises, Calgary can make the promotion while still getting all the same benefits presented in the first scenario.
HE SPENDS ALL YEAR IN STOCKTON
This might be the least exciting scenario, but it presents significant benefits for the Flames, specifically from a cap perspective. If Valimaki spends all year, or most of it, in the American League, he’ll qualify for an entry-level slide thanks to meeting the following conditions:
- Birthdate between Sept. 15 and Dec. 31
- Sign entry level contract prior to Dec. 31 of draft year
- Play fewer than 10 NHL games in each of the two seasons following signing entry-level contract
Because he was born on Oct. 6 and signed an entry-level deal a month after being drafted, Valimaki automatically qualifies for the first two bullet points. If he plays nine games or fewer in the NHL this season, he’ll also qualify for number three; Valimaki spent all of 2017-18 with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans.
Essentially, the Flames have the option to get a free development year out of Valimaki in this scenario. If he plays fewer than 10 NHL games, year one of his entry-level contract won’t start until October 2019, giving the team four pro years for the price of three.
The benefit to this is delaying when Valimaki would become eligible for a second contract. If things pan out the way everyone hopes, we’d be talking about a significant raise once his ELC expires. Knowing how Calgary’s cap situation projects, pushing another big raise for a year is a nice option to keep in the back pocket.
That said, there’s no reason to force this. If Valimaki truly needs the year to develop in Stockton, then by all means take full advantage of the bonus. But if he’s ready to play, and makes the NHL team better, Valimaki should be playing with the Flames.