The Flames have an impressive defensive group this year, but there’s one player who’s missing: Juuso Valimaki.
Valimaki last played in the NHL on Nov. 23, when he sustained an ankle injury playing 17:47 in a loss to the Golden Knights. He missed two months of action before he was sent to the AHL, and dressed for his first game back on Jan. 25 for the Heat. Since then, he’s played 13 minor league games, scoring two goals and putting up nine points in that time.
Also recall that the Flames love Valimaki: he was a player they were absolutely not willing to part with, which took them out of the running for a trade deadline deal to acquire Mark Stone. Considering Valimaki’s ceiling – and remember, he’s still only 20 years old – it was a smart long-term move. There’s very real potential for him to take over as a top pairing defenceman one day.
But that’s the future. For the now, the Flames are all but officially in the playoffs, and working to solidify home ice advantage (and perhaps to avoid a nasty first round divisional matchup, as well). They currently have eight defencemen at their disposal:
And that number should go up to 10 once Michael Stone returns from his conditioning stint, and whenever Valimaki gets called up.
Which begs the question: when should Valimaki get brought back up to the NHL?
There are a few factors to consider here: in the AHL, Valimaki gets to play top pairing minutes and continue rounding his game back into form. He’s been impressive, but we have to remember this is still just his first year as a professional; missing two months due to injury takes its toll and there’s no sense in overwhelming him this early in his career. Furthermore, though the Heat’s playoff hopes look poor, they’re still alive, and Valimaki undoubtedly helps them a fair bit.
On the other hand, with all apologies to the Heat, but we know for a fact the Flames will be in the playoffs, while the Heat would have to perform something of a miracle to get there. Valimaki will almost certainly be spending his spring in Calgary as the Flames look to contend not just for the future, but right now. He’s a rookie who made the NHL out of training camp and increasingly looked like he belonged until he was injured, and he’s someone the Flames, in all likelihood, will want to have available for the playoffs.
If Valimaki is in the NHL postseason, then he’ll need to get some NHL games in beforehand – if not just for his own sake for reacclimatizing to the competition level, then for the Flames’ sake so they can reevaluate him and determine if he’s a preferred option to someone like Oliver Kylington, who has taken over his spot and has already played 36 NHL games this season compared to Valimaki’s 22 (not to mention the fact that he simply has more professional experience).
There are 16 games remaining in the Flames’ regular season, nine of which will be played in Calgary. In other words, very little travel fatigue should be affecting the team through March: they have a back-to-back in Vegas and Arizona, one-off nights in Winnipeg and Vancouver, and then a three-game trip through California to close things out.
Along the way, the Flames face a number of weaker opponents who won’t even be fighting to make the playoffs: nine of their remaining games will be against teams that are pretty much done, including seven of their last nine.
Stone will likely be back in the NHL in time for the Flames’ game against the Blue Jackets on March 19, their 10th last game of the season. Would that be a good time to call Valimaki up, as well: a time when the group already knows they have another player to try to get back up to speed, with a relatively easy schedule from that point onwards? (A potential bonus: might Valimaki and Stone be partners in Stockton?)
Or would that be unideal for the Flames, who will likely still be fighting to try to win the Pacific Division crown, to have two defencemen playing in the lineup when pivotal points are probably still on the line? Would alternating them between games work instead? Would such a move be fair to, say, Kylington, the most likely of the present regulars to draw out of the lineup? Would it even make sense, considering how Rasmus Andersson has already passed Stone on the depth chart; is there an expectation for him to draw in at all – and should he get ice time?
For that matter, should Valimaki, or has that ship sailed for the season?
When would you want Valimaki playing in the NHL again, if at all? Is he someone the Flames should look to dress in the playoffs, and if so, what would your plan be to get him back up to NHL speed? What would you do?