Welcome back to FlamesNation’s 2021 Flames UFA Targets series, in which our team of writers assesses some of the top players still remaining on the market.
Once upon a time, Sami Vatanen was a legitimate top-four defenseman for the Anaheim Ducks who excelled in all situations. He could kill penalties, he drove play at 5-on-5, and he scored plenty.
Vatanen’s game took a slight turn for the worse after he was traded to the New Jersey Devils in 2017 but he remained a positive-impact player throughout both his stints in the Garden State. Having just turned 30 years old, Vatanen conceivably still has multiple solid years ahead of him.
Born Jun. 3, 1991 (30 years old)
5’10”, 185 pounds
Previous contract: one year, $2 million AAV
The Anaheim Ducks drafted Vatanen in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft; he debuted with the club in the lockout-shortened 2012–13 season and emerged as an NHL regular the following year.
Vatanen almost immediately became one of the Ducks’ most valuable defensemen. He scored 21 points in 48 games and averaged 17:27 as a rookie during the 2013–14 season; in 2014–15, he finished slightly behind Hampus Lindholm for third on the Ducks at 21:28 per game and led all rearguards on the team with 12 goals and 37 points in 67 contests.
Immediately after entering the NHL, Vatanen became one of the Ducks’ most trusted presences on the power play. Even in his eight games during the 2012–13 campaign, he averaged 2:41 with the extra man. During his entire tenure with the Ducks, Vatanen never averaged less than 2:23 per season on the man-advantage.
Vatanen also gradually added penalty-killing responsibilities as he became more experienced, creeping over the 2:00-per-game mark in each of his final three seasons with the Ducks.
The Ducks started the 2017–18 season with an underwhelming 11-10-4 record. On Nov. 30, 2017, Anaheim sent Vatanen and a conditional draft pick to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for centre Adam Henrique, prospect Joseph Blandisi, and a third-round selection in 2018.
Vatanen struggled to stay healthy in the final two seasons of the four-year deal he signed with the Ducks in 2016. He appeared in just 97 games with the Devils combined between the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons and, while injured, was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2020 trade deadline. Vatanen did not appear in any games with the Hurricanes during the regular season but returned for seven contests with his new team in the playoff bubble.
As an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, Vatanen signed a one-year contract back with New Jersey on Jan. 7, 2021. He was removed from the Devils’ power play altogether and saw his total ice-time significantly cut in 2020–21; however, he still averaged 2:36 of penalty-killing time per game.
After being waived the previous day, Vatanen was claimed by the Dallas Stars on Apr. 12, 2021. He played nine scoreless games in Dallas to finish the season and was deployed almost exclusively at 5-on-5.
By the numbers
Vatanen is a productive defenceman who has averaged eight goals and 35 points for every 82 games in his NHL career. He provided major value at 5-on-5 in his first three full seasons in Anaheim, amassing 16.3 offensive expected goals above replacement at even-strength (according to Evolving-Hockey) in 186 games between the 2013–14 and 2015–16 campaigns.
While he has always been successful on special teams, Vatanen increasingly relied on the power play and the PK to generate value during his first tenure with the Devils. In 2018–19, he provided -2.5 xGAR at 5-on-5 but made up for it with a total of +2.6 xGAR on special teams.
A selection of Sami Vatanen’s play-driving figures in the NHL (data from Natural Stat Trick, all 5v5)
|Season||Individual Shots/60||Individual Points/60||Individual Scoring Chances/60||Individual Expected Goals/60||On-Ice Relative
|On-Ice Rel Expected Goals %||On-Ice Relative
|2017–18 (ANA, 15 GP)||3.21||0.53||2.14||0.18||-10.71||-10.41||-0.40||+0.74|
(NJ, 57 GP)
(NJ, 30 GP)
(DAL, 9 GP)
Note: In the second-last column, a positive number indicates Vatanen’s team had better offensive results with him on the ice than without him. In the last column on the right, a negative number indicates Vatanen’s team allowed fewer chances with him on the ice than without him.
Vatanen is a mobile Finn who could add a scoring element lacking on the Flames’ existing blue-line configuration. He could also serve as a mentor to Juuso Valimaki, one of his young countrymen.
Of note: Evolving-Hockey’s expected goals above replacement model has a far more favourable view on Vatanen than that of Natural Stat Trick. Evolving-Hockey pegs Vatanen as having provided +2.3 offensive xGAR and +0.6 defensive xGAR at 5-on-5 in 2020–21.
According to Evolving-Hockey, Vatanen contributed $1.9 million of total value in 2020–21 compared to his $2.0 million cap hit. (He peaked at a valuation of $10.2 million with the Ducks in 2015–16).
Sami Vatanen's next contract likely won't cost much. The Flames might be wise to bet on him bouncing back from his tough 2020–21 season. pic.twitter.com/w45UPo2X9D
— Mike Gould (@miketgould) August 3, 2021
The Flames desperately need help on defence. Vatanen shoots right and can contribute in almost any situation. He’s not perfect — few UFAs are, let alone those still available nearly a week into the signing period — but he also has much more upside than anybody else still on the market.