While there is an ever-growing list of players previously deemed to be out for the season that are now appearing likely to be available to their respective teams at some point in the upcoming expanded postseason, don’t expect young Calgary Flames defenseman Juuso Valimaki to join the trend. Sportsnet’s Eric Francis reports that Valimaki, who has missed the whole 2019-20 season, is not likely to re-join the Flames in their qualifying round match-up with the Winnipeg Jets or at any point in the playoffs should they advance. The risk, both to the player and team, outweigh the potential gains in this situation and Francis does not believe that Calgary will take the chance.
Health continues to be the major issue at hand when it comes to Valimaki. The 21-year-old defenseman suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during off-season training last summer. He underwent surgery in late August. By all accounts, including that of Flames GM Brad Treliving, recovery and rehab from ACL reconstruction is ten months to a year. While Valimaki has been participating in voluntary skates with his teammates in Calgary, he has yet to be medically cleared by the team’s medical staff. If he is on pace for the latter end of that expected timeline, Valimaki would not be prepared for game action by the time the knockout round is set to begin and would have to prove he is up to the physical requirements of playoff hockey should the Flames advance.
However, the non-medical reason behind not playing Valimaki may be even more compelling. As Francis details, Calgary has more long-term, team building considerations to take into account in the form of the impending 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. Assuming the Flames protect seven forwards and three defensemen in the draft, they would eliminate a very difficult decision if Valimaki does not play a game this season. The young blue liner used up his first season of pro competition as a rookie in 2018-19, but will not be credited with a year of service if he does not play this year. This would make him ineligible for draft exposure, as only those with more than two years of pro service may be selected. However, should Valimaki play even one game this year, he would require protection in next summer’s draft or otherwise would be picked off by Seattle. Francise believes that Flames defenders Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson are locks for protection and that Valimaki would be as well if eligible, leaving veteran captain and top defender Mark Giordano exposed and a very likely candidate to be selected.
Playing Valimaki this season is not worth that risk. The young defenseman is very talented but has not played competitive hockey in over a year and it is hard to imagine that his surgically reconstructed knee or even his conditioning would be ready for an immediate jump into postseason play. On top of that, the Flames have Giordano, Hanifin, Andersson, T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Oliver Kylington and Michael Stone to lean on, making Valimaki an expendable piece of this year’s playoff run, especially if it helps to maintain the roster for future title chances.