Juuso Valimaki’s imminent return to active duty comes at an interesting time for the Flames. As of this publish date, the trade deadline is exactly five weeks away and multiple reports suggest Calgary is interested in adding a left-shot defender. It’s not overstating it to suggest how Valimaki fares upon his return will determine the type of defenceman the Flames end up targeting.
IN THE IMMEDIACY
I’m anticipating an AHL assignment for Valimaki to coincide with Calgary’s forthcoming eight-day break, which makes sense. Valimaki has missed 27 games with a high ankle sprain sustained Nov. 23 against the Vegas Golden Knights. When he’s cleared to return, the rookie defenceman will have missed roughly two months of action, if not more. Getting Valimaki a few games in Stockton before bringing him back into an NHL lineup gives him a fighting chance to win a spot back.
The Heat play a pair of games while the Flames are on their break (Jan. 25 and 26) and two more right as they come off it (Feb. 1 and 2). If you mix in a few practices with four tune-up games, that’s probably a decent enough stint for Valimaki before returning to Calgary’s lineup. Remember, Valimaki doesn’t have to clear waivers at any point this season, so the Flames can move him freely between the AHL and NHL.
If Valimaki quickly returns to the level he was at through the first two months of the season, it probably negates Calgary’s need to add a top six defenceman. With Valimaki and Oliver Kylington as left-shot options on the third pair, the Flames could instead focus on a lower impact acquisition, which would theoretically cost less.
Even in this best case scenario, though, I still think it makes sense for Calgary to think about acquiring another left-shooting defenceman. Valimaki and Kylington are both rookies and have seen mostly sheltered minutes. If either, or both, prove to be in over their head come the playoffs, having another viable depth option would be a huge asset for the Flames.
Let’s also not forget how much of an attrition battle the NHL postseason truly is. Teams suffer injuries, and usually multiple injuries, while on deep playoff runs. Both Washington and Vegas used seven defensemen en route to the Stanley Cup Final last season, while Pittsburgh used eight both years they went all the way. Reliable depth is crucial to go where the Flames want to this spring.
ON THE OTHER HAND…
Let’s say things don’t go according to plan for Valimaki. After all, missing a third of a season and being asked to come back from a serious injury isn’t the easiest thing to do for any player, let alone a 20-year-old in his first NHL season. If Calgary doesn’t feel comfortable with Valimaki in their top six heading down the stretch, it stands to reason they’d be looking for a more impactful player ahead of the deadline.
Trying to determine who fits that bill is a guessing game, at best. Depending on which reports you believe, any one of Jake Muzzin, Alex Edler, Jay Bouwmeester, or Niklas Kronwall could be available, among others. Prices are going to be understandably higher for guys like that, though, which begs the question: how much is too much to pay?
I’d be on board with the Flames giving up reasonable future assets to acquire a bona fide NHL defenceman if the need was there. Knowing the team’s cap situation for next season, however, a rental makes the most sense. As such, I’d suggest a first round pick is probably too high a price, but something from the second round and beyond wouldn’t be crazy.
A second round pick would obviously have to come from a future draft, but Calgary has their full compliment of picks beyond 2019, so the option does exist.
As for Valimaki’s fate in the event of a significant acquisition, there’s no harm in putting him in the American League for the remainder of the season. He’d still be available come the playoffs when roster limits cease to exist, and by that time Valimaki would have a good chunk of games under his belt in the minors.
The Flames are in a good spot here. Valimaki could theoretically be back in their lineup for early February, which would give the team a few weeks of evaluation time. In the end, Valimaki has the opportunity to make this decision for Calgary, because I truly believe his play will dictate how the team approaches the trade deadline, at least on the blueline.