Four intriguing Flames bubble players who could be waiver bait during camp
Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Mike Gould8 months ago
Today marks the beginning of autumn.
In the National Hockey League, that means only one thing: it’s time for training camps to begin.
All 32 teams have already begun to evaluate the players vying for everyday roles in the NHL this season, and the Calgary Flames will take to the ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome for their first on-ice practice sessions this morning.
While it’s safe to say the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau and Jacob Markstrom have already locked down their spots with the 2022–23 Flames, there are many others looking to sway things in their favour over the coming days and weeks.
The Flames elected to run with a relatively veteran-heavy roster for much of the 2021–22 season, but injuries can happen at any time and head coach Darryl Sutter has shown a willingness to reward young players who excel in training camp — just look at Oliver Kylington.
When all is said and done, the 32 NHL teams will make dozens (if not hundreds) of players available on waivers for the purpose of assigning them to their respective American Hockey League affiliates. The Flames will be forced to make some tough decisions with this risk in mind — although they can take solace in the fact that every other team will be going through the same process.
NHL teams pick up players off waivers every fall, but the vast majority go unclaimed (including Kylington, back before the 2020–21 season). Nevertheless, here are four intriguing Flames bubble players who could be candidates to hit the waiver wire (and potentially find new NHL homes) during or after training camp.
It certainly isn’t difficult to imagine Ruzicka locking down a regular role with the Flames during the pre-season. He showed well in 28 NHL games last season and has very little left to prove in the AHL, where he’s consistently been a high-end producer.
Ruzicka turned 23 in May and, for the first time in his career, requires waivers to be sent down. He still hasn’t completely answered the questions about his consistency and drive that followed him in junior, but he’s come a long way. It was encouraging to see him finally sign a two-year deal with the Flames on Wednesday.
Many players clear waivers at this time of year. Ruzicka might not. He’s a big centre who has produced at a decent clip in the NHL. He would probably slot in seamlessly as a middle-six centre with the Philadelphia Flyers or Arizona Coyotes. Unless Ruzicka really struggles in camp, the Flames should probably keep him up to start the season — even if he doesn’t play every night.
Mackey is another player who has never been eligible to pass through waivers in his career. That changes this year, and he certainly has a lot of work to do to avoid being made available to the 31 other NHL clubs.
Let’s begin with the obvious. MacKenzie Weegar, Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson, Chris Tanev, Oliver Kylington, and Nikita Zadorov are making this team. That leaves one — or maybe two — spots on defence.
But as we covered earlier this month, Mackey isn’t really a prospect anymore. At 26, Mackey is older than half of the Flames’ six regular defenders. He’s already more than established himself as a dominant presence in the AHL, and it’s time for Jeremie Poirier and Yan Kuznetsov to take the reins down there.
Michael Stone should, and likely will, return to the Flames in a depth role this season. How Mackey performs in training camp will likely dictate whether the Flames elect to carry seven or eight defenders on a regular basis in 2022–23.
Phillips has done everything he possibly could have (except growing six inches taller) since the Flames selected him in the sixth round back in 2016. He’s enjoyed three consecutive seasons as a key offensive catalyst with the Stockton Heat, most recently finishing as the AHL’s top-scoring U24 player during the 2021–22 season.
Unfortunately for Phillips, the opportunities just haven’t been there for him over the last few years, largely precipitated by the Flames enjoying a long stretch as the NHL’s healthiest team. Even as Phillips scored 68 points in 65 AHL games last year, he didn’t receive a single look with the Flames — but then again, neither did most of his teammates. The 2021–22 Flames were one of the premier teams in the entire league and boasted a ton of different (and more proven) options at forward.
Phillips passed through waivers last fall. The 24-year-old is coming off a year where he was more productive in the AHL than almost all of his peers, but he’s probably a safe bet to clear again. Phillips will likely be looked upon to lead the way for the reborn Calgary Wranglers — and, if he thrives once more, he might just receive the NHL opportunity Flames general manager Brad Treliving said he earned with his excellent play last season.
Does any player on the Flames’ training camp roster have more to prove than Valimaki? The 23-year-old Finn had a rough go of it with the Stockton Heat last season, noticeably struggling with his mobility at times and mustering just two assists in 10 games during the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs.
Valimaki has dealt with rotten injury luck since joining the Flames at the 2017 NHL Draft. He missed most of the 2018–19 season while recovering from a high-ankle sprain and sat out the entire 2019–20 campaign after suffering a torn ACL during summer training. Even after a productive Liiga stint with Ilves Tampere in 2020–21, Valimaki has been unable to meet expectations in Calgary and appeared in just nine NHL games this past season.
Unless he completely blows the doors off in training camp, it’s hard to imagine Valimaki cracking the Flames’ NHL roster. He might clear waivers (he’s newly eligible this season) but even then, would he really benefit from another AHL demotion? It’s probably safe to say he wouldn’t be thrilled with that outcome.
The most likely outcome for Valimaki might be a trade, although it’s possible he could first clear waivers before that happens. Such a manoeuvre would give the acquiring team the flexibility to move Valimaki back and forth between the NHL and the AHL for a while. If Valimaki were to be claimed off waivers, his new team would be unable to demote him without first waiving him again.
Valimaki commands a premium salary for a depth defender ($1.55 million) and is stuck behind a logjam in Calgary. If there’s one Flames player who is the most likely to be a member of a different organization a month from now, it’s him.
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