Juuso Valimaki hasn’t played a game this season. Knowing the serious injury he sustained in August, there’s a decent chance Valimaki won’t see NHL action again until September. The situation is fluid, though, which means home remains Valimaki could yet be an option for Calgary between now and April. What the Flames decide for Valimaki has significantly impacts how they approach the trade deadline in just over a month.
The current situation
Valimaki tore his ACL during offseason training and has been working his way back ever since. The “normal” recovery time for that injury is six-to-nine months, but as we know, elite athletes typically return closer to the front end of those estimates. In saying that, the Flames have never given us a timeline, which puts a potential target date for a Valimaki return in question.
“It’s still undetermined right now,” general manager Brad Treliving told Peter Klein and me late last month. “It’s just a process and that’s not to be cute or anything, we just, until such time as he starts the skating portion of that rehab, at least then… you can start looking at maybe refining the timeline. We’re not at that stage yet and he just continues to go through that process.
“We’re going to be real careful, this isn’t something where we’re going to rush Juuso back. We’re not looking at it as a short-term view of this. We think this is a player that’s going to be an important player for the organization for a long period of time. We’re going to take every precaution needed; when he’s ready to go and when he gets the green light from the doctors, that’s when he’ll be back. I can’t narrow that timeline for you here right now, but hopefully in the coming weeks we will.”
Treliving is being cautious on this one, and understandably so. Still just 21 years old, Valimaki’s injury was serious and the team is adamant about avoiding risk at any cost. So for now, Valimaki’s timeline remains “indefinite” as he continues to work his tail off through rehab.
“He’s in before everybody and usually is here after everybody leaves,” Treliving said. “Those long-term injuries are, as difficult as they are physically, it’s a grind mentally for the young guy. Here’s a guy who we and, he, expected to take a big step in his growth this year. He’s tackled the process exactly how I thought he would. It’s one thing to be out a week or two, it’s another thing when you’re talking months and months. You go through highs and lows.”
From everything I’m led to believe, the Flames are perfectly content having Valimaki miss the entire season. That’s not to say a return to hockey at some level is out of the question in the spring. Instead, it suggests the team is looking at Valimaki less like a viable option and more of a pleasant surprise if everything works out. Nothing Treliving has said publicly would refute that.
“For me, what I’ve told the coaches and everything is just: take his name off the board right now, when it’s ready we’ll let you know. I’m not about to start… cutting corners so that you get him back and potentially risk something long-term. We’ve seen it before with players that have gone through injuries and all of a sudden you get rushed back.
“He’s going to be back when he’s ready, when he’s healthy, when everything is 100%. Hopefully that’s in time for some time this season, but we’re not dictating it on our season calendar. We’re dictating it on when the doctors tell us everything is good. That’s not to say that anything has gone awry; if anything he’s ahead of schedule, as we expect him to be.”
So, while the door has been left open for a return, it’s anything but a certainty. In fact, I would suggest it’s more likely Valimaki does not play NHL games this season. Even if he does, I’m not sure Calgary will have a definitive answer in time for the Feb. 24 deadline. Remember, Valimaki has to be clearly 100% before the Flames would even consider a return, which doesn’t take into account getting him back up to speed to join a league already 60+ games into the season.
Knowing all this, the Flames can’t assume a Valimaki return is a given when evaluating potential deadline moves. Both Travis Hamonic and TJ Brodie are pending unrestricted free agents and could net Calgary a decent return, either in a “hockey trade” or a move with an eye to the future. There are reasons to think about moving one of Brodie or Hamonic prior to the deadline, but an impending Valimaki return can’t be one of them.
Valimaki remains a core piece for the Flames and projects as a top four defenceman, and a potential top pairing guy, for years to come. While a return before the end of this season would be nice, and not completely out of the question, it’s far from a sure thing. Banking on it would be irresponsible, which means any potential trade impacting the blueline prior to the deadline has to be made independent of Valimaki’s status.