With 10 preseason games behind us and a Tuesday afternoon roster deadline looming, the Flames have some decisions to make. Based on what we’ve seen thus far, I don’t know if those decisions should be overly difficult, though. All three of Dillon Dube, Juuso Valimaki, and Rasmus Andersson have played well enough to start the season in Calgary. Making room for them on the opening night roster is relatively simple.
MAKING THE CASE
Regardless of any perceived roster backlog, all three of these players have showed more than well enough to merit consideration. While always taking preseason stats with a large grain of salt, it’s tough to argue with this trio’s individual outputs at five-on-five. Preseason stats courtesy NaturalStatTrick.
Dube’s preseason was eye-opening for so many different reasons. He was productive (4G, 2A, 6 PTS) in his seven appearances, which is nice, but only plays a small part in my evaluation. Far more important is what I saw in the finer areas of his game.
Dube has helped the team create offence. He distributes the puck well, recognizes and skates to open areas, and uses his speed to generate off the rush. I’ve also liked Dube’s ability to defend away from the puck and use his intelligence to anticipate and create turnovers.
Perhaps most importantly, Dube has stood out in all personnel situations. His preseason started minus NHL teammates and against unimpressive opposition. It ended against top flight rosters (San Jose, Edmonton) while playing with players like Derek Ryan, James Neal, and Johnny Gaudreau. Dube’s level didn’t drop nor did he ever look out of place.
I’m not surprised at Andersson’s preseason thus far, mainly because he’s looked like an NHLer going back to last season. Andersson’s skating continues to improve, his offensive instincts are strong, and he’s made good decisions under pressure in his own zone.
Sure, there are some, including his coach, who have pointed out Andersson’s propensity for keeping the puck on his stick too long. That may be the case, but also seems relatively fixable and doesn’t outweigh Andersson’s positive attributes. As a right-shot defender, I believe Andersson brings more to the table than Michael Stone.
The biggest surprise for me is Valimaki, because of the way things looked earlier this month. Calgary’s 2017 first round pick appeared in over his head as the preseason got underway, but the more he played, the better he looked. It’s to the point where Valimaki is seriously threatening Brett Kulak’s incumbent position and, much like Andersson, I believe the younger option brings more.
Yes, he’s 20 and has never played a professional game, but Valimaki’s performance in the team’s final two preseason games looked NHL level to me. Valimaki is strong in one-on-one puck battles defensively, is a gifted skater, and isn’t afraid to enter the rush. Perhaps he needs to be reined in a little, but not too much.
Yes, I’m aware all of these observations have come from preseason hockey, which is an important distinction, but it’s also all we have to go on. The only way we’re definitively going to know whether Dube, Andersson, and Valimaki are capable at regular season pace is by getting them into regular season games.
MAKING IT WORK
Flames management doesn’t need to agonize over multiple impossible decisions to make this happen. The roadmap is fairly straightforward and it starts by finishing training camp with two goalies, eight defencemen, and 13 forwards.
Calgary can keep both Andersson and Valimaki, and even play them as a pair on opening night, without having to trade a veteran or expose an NHL regular to waivers. By starting with eight blueline bodies on the roster, the team has some intriguing options.
Mark Giordano-TJ Brodie
Noah Hanifin-Travis Hamonic
Juuso Valimaki-Rasmus Andersson
Brett Kulak-Michael Stone
While a Valimaki-Andersson pairing is an exciting proposition, the Flames wouldn’t be tying themselves to that combination. All four defencemen at the bottom of the above depth chart can easily mix and match depending on opponent or performance. Employing that philosophy keeps players fresh and buys time to evaluate who fits better with whom.
It’s not like there’s a lot of risk involved, either. If Valimaki and/or Andersson prove they’re not ready for prime time, the solution is simple: send them to the American League. Neither player requires waivers and neither will suffer one bit in Stockton.
Conversely, if both young defencemen pop and prove the NHL is where they belong come November or December, Calgary has time and leeway to adapt. The team could put Kulak on waivers and assign him to the AHL or could look at trading him or Stone, even if for a nominal return. Those options don’t exist without giving Valimaki and Andersson a shot.
This is by no means a slight towards either Stone or Kulak, either. The fact is, we know what both players are at this stage of the game: serviceable, but limited, third pairing defenders. We don’t know what Andersson and Valimaki can do in regular season action, though, and I believe the Flames owe it to themselves to find out. In the end, it’s all about icing the best possible lineup, right?
Things are far more cut and dried in Dube’s case: he’s on the team and in the lineup opening night in Vancouver, at least for me. What competition does he really have? In fact, what difficult decisions do they actually have to make up front? Whether it slots precisely like below, these are my 13 forwards:
Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Elias Lindholm
Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-Michael Frolik
Dillon Dube-Derek Ryan-James Neal
Sam Bennett-Mark Jankowski-Austin Czarnik
Calgary is at 16 forwards in camp right now, which means they’d need to cut three to get down to size. Those cuts seem fairly easy to me: Curtis Lazar, Anthony Peluso, and Andrew Mangiapane. The only caveat there is a hat tip to Mangiapane, because he’s looked strong this fall and is likely first man up when the Flames have an injury at forward.
Lazar has three goals combined over the last two seasons. I love the guy, I really do, but being a first round selection and an awesome dude shouldn’t be enough to keep him from going to Stockton. Yes, Calgary gave up a second rounder to get him, but they can’t change that now. I’m skeptical Lazar would be claimed on waivers, so starting him in the AHL seems like the obvious call.
Much of the same is true in Peluso’s case; I just don’t see a spot for a guy with four goals in 144 career NHL games. The Flames signed Peluso for his ability to play a physical game, which is fair enough. But from everything I’ve seen, Garnet Hathaway does the same thing while bringing more to the table.
There is nothing negative about this situation for the Flames. The team made a concerted effort to upgrade their depth during the offseason, which was needed. Now Calgary has three high-end prospects knocking on the door, too. Yes, it forces potentially uncomfortable decisions involving incumbent players, but the NHL is a business and these are highly compensated individuals.
The Flames owe it to themselves to see if Dube, Andersson, and Valimaki can get the job done at regular season pace. All three players have earned it over the course of a long training camp and preseason. For me, any justification to keep any one of them off the opening night roster is nothing more than an excuse.