A lot of analysts, fans and onlookers had big expectations for the 2020-21 Calgary Flames, and one of the reasons was because of the team’s crop of young defensemen. But despite their promise, their young defenders collectively didn’t quite take the big steps many expected for them.
Here’s a snapshot of the team’s under-25 blueliners and how they’ve done this season.
The 24-year-old Hanifin had the best season of his Flames tenure and one of the better on-ice seasons of his entire pro career to this point. Heading into this campaign, Hanifin was considered by many to be a really effective secondary defender whose occasionally defensive deficiencies could be covered up by playing with a smart two-way partner. He was used with Travis Hamonic in the past and the thought was Chris Tanev would be similar in that role.
Well, Hanifin and Tanev clicked exceptionally well from the get-go. Hanifin seemed to pick up things from Tanev over the season, and by the end of the year – before his injury – Darryl Sutter moved Hanifin to a pairing with Rasmus Andersson because he felt Hanifin was ready to drive a pairing of his own.
Hanifin was on pace for a 26 point full (82-game) season when he was injured, but the big progression was in his 200-foot game and his confidence in all aspects of his game. He’ll be someone to watch when the 2021-22 season begins, as potentially he can begin to take some duties away from a 38-year-old Mark Giordano.
Andersson played most of the season with Mark Giordano. When Giordano was put with Tanev, Andersson was placed with Hanifin. When Hanifin got hurt, Andersson began to play with Nikita Nesterov. This shuffling around is somewhat emblematic of Andersson’s whole season; the Swede hasn’t been awful, but he hasn’t been great, and the “disappointment” some analysts discuss when speaking about him is likely because many expected him to take the step that Hanifin ended up taking.
Playing with Giordano on the top deployment pair, rather than in a role that he could be sheltered in, Andersson was able to generate offense but struggled defensively at times. Plus/minus is a flawed statistic, but Andersson’s minus-11 – the worst active player on the Flames. Of all the defenders, he’s arguably the one that’s been challenged the most by the transition from Geoff Ward’s system to Sutter’s, and the team’s transition game struggles may have impacted him the most. (Andersson’s more of a “jump into the rush” guy than a big stretch pass guy, and the Flames forwards have often cheated into the neutral zone to generate offense and Andersson would often have those passes picked off.)
Andersson’s a good offensive player, but shoring up his defensive game may be the secret to unlocking his full potential.
In 2018-19, Valimaki went pro at the age of 20 and was limited to 46 games due to a high ankle sprain suffered mid-season. In 2019-20, he played zero games due to knee surgery. In 2020-21, he’s played 19 games in Finland and 47 (so far) for the Flames.
This is leading to the question: how much can we poke holes in the game of a 22-year-old defenseman who has missed basically a year and a half of development during some of the most formative years for a high-end defenseman? If you’ve watched Sutter’s post-game pressers, you’ve seen Sutter bristle at some penalties or turnovers that Valimaki has made. But Sutter’s also been complimentary of his game at times, and has emphasized that the mistakes Valimaki has made are symptoms of things like getting caught out of position or making the wrong decision with the puck.
With all the time Valimaki’s missed, he’s almost still an NHL rookie. He’s going to make mistakes, but hopefully the team is being patient with him and allowing him to work through those gaffes. He’s still playing a ton – he’s been a healthy scratch four times but has largely been a third line fixture otherwise – and hopefully those reps lead to improvements.
If Valimaki is a 22-year-old who’s basically a rookie, Kylington is a 23-year-old who’s basically a veteran. Kylington is in his sixth season in the Flames system. He entered the season with 87 NHL games and 190 AHL games under his belt, and a reputation for being a great skater, whip-smart offensive player, but a guy who needs to use his skating to overcome occasionally defensive gaffes – he’s basically a Swedish TJ Brodie in that regard.
Has Kylington progressed much? Well, he’s been on the taxi squad for most of the season and he’s played just six games. It’s unclear where he fits in with the Flames long-term. On the left side, he’s behind Giordano, Hanifin and Valimaki (and probably Connor Mackey, too). On the right side, he’s behind Andersson and Tanev. At this point, he seems like an insurance policy depth player that the club seems completely fine not using very often. (It wouldn’t have made sense to throw him into the lineup when the team was playing so poorly on a collective basis, but he’s at worst a lateral move defensively from Nikita Nesterov.)
The 24-year-old Mackey has been a nice surprise this season. Sometimes, highly-touted college signings turn into Kenney Morrison or Josh Healey. But Mackey impressed. Initially used as a taxi squad player before the AHL got started up, Mackey played three games for the Flames on the third pairing. He didn’t look out of place, and that’s as a college player who hadn’t played a high-level game of hockey in months and who was making his first pro appearances.
He joined Stockton when they started up and emerged as the club’s top blueliner, noticeable on most nights in positive ways. He’s moved back to the taxi squad and seems a strong candidate to get more NHL games in before the end of the season. He was a little bit tentative in his first few NHL games, so it’ll be interesting to see if the swagger he developed with the Heat comes with him back to the Flames.
The other guys
The Flames had three early-to-mid 20s defenders on the Stockton roster. Alexander Yelesin (25) was a regular but spent most of his time on the second pairing, usually behind Alex Petrovic, and played with a rotation of players. He was fine, but his offensive numbers didn’t grow that much beyond his first AHL season. Colton Poolman (25) had a couple minor injuries, but otherwise always played and was a solid if unspectacular AHL second and third pairing player. C.J. Lerby (23) had a disappointing year, getting healthy scratched a few times and ending up as the Heat’s de facto seventh defender by the end of the season.
How would you like the Flames to manage their young defensemen through the end of the season? How should they be used next season? Sound off in the comments!