Right now, the numbers simply aren’t in Juuso Valimaki’s favour.
Valimaki is set to turn 24 just five days before the Calgary Flames play their first game of the 2022–23 regular season. He’s coming off a year where he played just nine National Hockey League games before being relegated to the AHL in November.
The 6’2″, 212-pound left-handed defenceman is one of nine defenders currently signed to a one-way contract with the Flames — and that doesn’t include RFA Oliver Kylington.
The Flames’ defensive field is crowded, and Valimaki just hasn’t been able to stand out.
Barring any more trades, MacKenzie Weegar, Chris Tanev, Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin, Nikita Zadorov, and Kylington all have cut-and-dried spots on the Flames’ blue line. Kylington still needs a new contract; he’s scheduled to attend a salary arbitration hearing on August 10.
Injuries are an inevitability in hockey, of course, but Valimaki likely isn’t the first player Brad Treliving and Darryl Sutter will call upon to replace any of the top six on defence.
Connor Mackey outplayed Valimaki by a wide margin with the Stockton Heat down the stretch last season and remained with the Flames during the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s a strong candidate to take the No. 7 NHL spot in Calgary next year.
It’s also not hard to imagine Michael Stone coming back on another one-year contract. Actually, it would be harder to imagine Stone not returning. The Flames love him, he’s clearly comfortable sticking around, and he performed very well in last year’s playoffs.
The Flames have already added Nic Meloche and Dennis Gilbert into the fold this summer. Both players are under team control for at least the next two seasons and, unlike Valimaki, would likely clear waivers at the end of training camp.
Valimaki is a player whose off-ice value almost certainly surpasses what he provides on the ice. He still has the pedigree of a first-round pick, and it wasn’t long ago that he was tearing up the Liiga after missing an entire season due to injury.
After seeing how well Valimaki performed in Finland’s top-tier league two seasons ago, it was hard to watch him struggle (particularly with his skating) at the AHL level in 2021–22. He’s been through a lot, missing most of two critical development years while dealing with lower-body injuries.
First, a high-ankle sprain derailed Valimaki’s promising 2018–19 season with the Flames. Then, he missed the entire 2019–20 campaign while recovering from a torn ACL he suffered during off-season training.
In the midst of all this, Valimaki’s name reportedly came up in talks for the Flames to include him (or a similar young defenceman) as part of a package to acquire Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators at the 2019 trade deadline. The Sens ultimately moved Stone to the Vegas Golden Knights.
There are a lot of “what could have been” scenarios to consider with Valimaki. Of course, we’re not here to eulogize his career: as mentioned, he’s on the right side of 25 and plays a position where patience can be the key to a player’s development.
The Flames were able to send Valimaki to the AHL last season to get him some more playing time without having to risk losing him on waivers. That will no longer be the case this year. At this point, it seems highly likely Valimaki will find himself available to all 31 other NHL teams at some point during the 2022–23 season.
Here’s a look at the Flames’ depth chart of defencemen on NHL contracts (we’re not going to include Stone in this table, but keep him in mind as a legitimate possibility to return). Players who are exempt from waivers are listed in bold italic text.
|Left defence||Right defence|
|MacKenzie Weegar||Chris Tanev|
|Noah Hanifin||Rasmus Andersson|
|Oliver Kylington (RFA)||Nikita Zadorov|
|Connor Mackey||Nic Meloche|
|Juuso Valimaki||Dennis Gilbert|
|Yan Kuznetsov||Nick DeSimone|
|Jeremie Poirier||Colton Poolman|
Meloche, Gilbert, DeSimone, and Poolman should have no problem clearing waivers. Valimaki? That’s less certain.
It’s also worth noting that Valimaki costs money against the Flames’ cap when he’s in the American Hockey League. He’s signed through the end of this season at a $1.55 million hit, and the Flames would be hit with a $425,000 penalty with him in the AHL. For that reason, Valimaki’s contract is slightly unwieldy for a cap team like the Flames.
Valimaki is a competitive guy who seemed to lose a little bit of that fire when he was demoted last year, spending time on the bottom pairing in Stockton. We’ve seen him play well in the NHL over brief stretches, but the Flames aren’t really in a position at this point where they’re able to give him consistent minutes with the big club. If Stone comes back, there’s a real chance Valimaki would be down at No. 9 on the Flames’ defensive depth chart.
Last fall, the Vancouver Canucks moved Olli Juolevi to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Juho Lammikko and Noah Juulsen. The move gave Juolevi a much-needed change of scenery while also providing the Canucks with a pair of useful depth players.
Today, Valimaki is in almost an identical position to the one Juolevi found himself in on the eve of the 2021–22 season. While Juolevi was unable to stick on a deep Panthers defensive group last year, Valimaki could have better luck if he’s moved to a team with less competition on the blue line.
It’s clear — from this vantage point, at least — that Valimaki needs a change of scenery. He’s unlikely to make the Flames out of camp, he might not clear waivers, and he probably wants another chance to prove himself in the NHL.
A trade between now and the season opener makes the most sense for everyone involved.
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