A huge season lies ahead for defenceman Juuso Valimaki. After signing a two-year deal at $1.55 million per last week, Valimaki is officially off his entry level contract and can start carving out his spot on Calgary’s blueline. Valimaki will be an RFA with arbitration rights when this deal expires, giving him a couple seasons to up his value. When you consider Valimaki’s performance last season with the opportunity that exists going forward, chances favour him doing just that.
I know there were some disappointed in Valimaki’s 2021 season, which I guess I can understand. Yeah, he wasn’t a Calder Trophy finalist and there were a few healthy scratch scenarios late in the season. But I’m on the other side of the conversation, because I think Valimaki had a really encouraging season.
First and foremost, Valimaki stayed healthy and played as full a year as anyone under pandemic restrictions. After not playing for the entirety of 2019-2020, Valimaki started last season in Finland with 19 games for Ilves Tampere before suiting up in 49 games with the Flames. For a guy who played just 44 games over a span of two seasons, playing 68 in the last hockey calendar year is significant.
Let’s be honest: for all intents and purposes, 2021 was Valimaki’s first NHL season. Using that caveat, I think he performed well and progressed as the season went along. And, when Valimaki was on the ice, he was one of Calgary’s most productive defencemen at five-on-five. Metrics courtesy Natural Stat Trick.
Valimaki averaged 13:56 at even strength last season, which was seventh on the team behind both Nikita Nesterov and Michael Stone. Yet, when he was out there, Valimaki got things done and finished top three per 60 minutes in goals, assists, points, shots, and shot attempts.
Yes, ice time was sheltered at times (63.4% offensive zone start) and there were defensive growing pains, but that’s not unexpected. As a 22-year-old d-man, there were bound to be ups and downs, as there are for virtually every rookie at his position. What I saw, though, was enormous upside with a good chance of being attained as Valimaki continues to develop.
With the departure of captain Mark Giordano, there is ice time to be had. Even with the acquisition of Nikita Zadorov (more on him shortly), the Flames are looking at a blueline more wide open than we’ve seen in years. Rasmus Andersson needs to rebound, Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin need to continue their incredible play from 2021, and we need to figure out what exactly Zadorov is.
Even more interesting is Zadorov’s uncertain future in Calgary. After using a third round pick to acquire him from Chicago in late July, the Flames and Zadorov agreed on a one-year deal last week at $3.75 million that walks him right to unrestricted free agency next summer. It’s a deal that screams of differing opinions from team and player, which is one of the rumoured reasons the Blackhawks opted to move on.
So what does this mean for Valimaki? Well, as of right now, Valimaki on a two-year deal with team control retained is more valuable to Calgary than Zadorov on an expiring contract. The expectation would be Valimaki starts the season on the team’s third pairing, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.
From what I understand, Valimaki has worked tirelessly this off-season to be ready to take another step this year. If positive progression is apparent early on, would pairings like this be crazy at some point in the next 82 games?
We know Hanifin and Andersson play well together, and we also know how good Tanev works with young partners. Calgary is still very invested in Valimaki as a future core piece, which suggests a stretch playing with Tanev could very well be in the cards. It makes a lot of sense to me.
Nothing has changed in that the Flames want Valimaki as part of their long-term future. But, going into what will be his first complete NHL campaign, there’s also plenty of opportunity right away. That’s why Valimaki is one of the most fascinating players to watch this year.