51Juuso Valimaki
Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports

A Juuso Valimaki return this season seems like a long shot

It seems unlikely the Flames will see injured defenceman Juuso Valimaki suit up when the NHL season resumes on Aug. 1. A combination of things lead me to that conclusion, from Valimaki’s expansion draft eligibility to Calgary’s depth on the blueline. Nothing is impossible, but with all the information we have now, I wouldn’t expect to see Valimaki back in game action until next season.

Technically speaking

As it stands, the understanding is Valimaki’s expansion draft status hangs in the balance based on whether he plays this season. While it remains officially unconfirmed, the thought for many months has been Valimaki would become eligible for next summer’s Seattle expansion draft if he were to play this season. Flames’ general manager Brad Treliving took his best shot at updating the situation late last month.

“Maybe and kinda,” was Treliving’s response when I asked him if he had any clarity on the situation. “What we’re operating on is, right now, because Juuso hasn’t played…and if he didn’t play this year, then he would not have the amount of years of service to make him eligible to be selected in the expansion draft. Therefore he’d be exempt, (but) if he does play, then he wouldn’t be exempt. That is our understanding right now, but I think that’s a little bit in pencil.”

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Treliving reiterated multiple times the team’s understanding has not been finalized by the league. The NHL’s primary focus right now is clearing the path for a return to play, while things like trade conditions and other important technicalities like Valimaki’s status will be addressed later on.

It’s not an insignificant decision for Calgary, though. If the team’s understanding is confirmed, the incentive is there to continue being extremely cautious with Valimaki like they have been all along. Having him exempt would allow the Flames to protect three other defencemen in the expansion draft, which could prevent them from losing a player they’d like to keep from Seattle.

Health considerations

My understanding is the original medical advice Calgary was working on was to keep Valimaki out of competitive game action for a full calendar year. Valimaki sustained his knee injury in the second week of August last summer, which would place the one-year anniversary somewhere around the start of the first round of this year’s playoffs.

There’s no question a pause of almost five months aided Valimaki’s chances to play this season, specifically from a recovery standpoint. But Treliving is still being very cautious when talking about his prized prospect.

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“The number one thing that we’re concerned with is Juuso’s health,” Treliving said. “To me, (his playing status) isn’t a question right now. You deal with health first and once he’s healthy then you deal with, okay: where are we at, are we still playing hockey, then you have to worry about that decision.

“I’m not doing anything to impact Juuso’s health, because I think he’s going to be a hell of a player for a long time here. That’s number one. Once he’s healthy, then we’ll determine where we are and if the season is still going on and all that sort of stuff.”

Valimaki is in Calgary skating with the team during phase two of the NHL’s relaunch. He also had retuned to on-ice workouts prior to the league going on pause March 12th. But with concern already existing about injuries once the season resumes, how much do the Flames want to put Valimaki at risk knowing the significant ones he’s dealt with each of the last three seasons?

Valimaki did return in impressive fashion last April for games four and five of Calgary’s playoff series with Colorado. That was after being away from NHL action for more than four months. The difference is Valimaki was able to suit up for 20 games with AHL Stockton before returning to the Flames last season. That luxury doesn’t exist this time around.

The roster

Aside from Valimaki, Calgary will be fully healthy when they start training camp later this month, which means they’ll have quite the logjam of defencemen. Remember, Erik Gustafsson and Derek Forbort were acquired at the trade deadline, which pushed Michael Stone and Oliver Kylington even further down the depth chart.

Don’t forget Travis Hamonic, either. He was poised to return prior to the NHL’s pause on March 12th, after missing 14 straight with what was believed to be a rib cartilage injury. All of that is to say the Flames will have a very crowded blueline when training camp kicks off next week. Below is the team’s expected depth chart for camp, minus Valimaki.

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Mark Giordano Rasmus Andersson
Noah Hanifin Travis Hamonic
Erik Gustafsson TJ Brodie
Derek Forbort Michael Stone
Oliver Kylington Alexander Yelesin

Under more normal circumstances, you could make the argument Valimaki is an upgrade in Calgary’s top six. Unfortunately, the current situation is anything but normal. Valimaki hasn’t played a competitive game since April 2019, which is also the last time he went through a full on practice with the team. That’s a lot of rust to knock off in two weeks prior to a best-of-five series.

Had the Flames not acquired Gustafsson and Forbort at the deadline, this might be a different conversation. But with Calgary’s numbers on the back end, and with Valimaki’s extended time away from competitive action, it seems unlikely he’ll be able to pass all the players he’d need to on the depth chart. For the rest of this season, anyway.