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Juuso Valimaki injury a setback for Flames but not a crisis

Juuso Valimaki of the Calgary Flames tore his ACL during off-season training. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

For all the concerns you might have had about the Calgary Flames’ roster coming into the season, it’s likely that defence wasn’t really one of them.

Calgary doesn’t have the best bottom six in the league, and there are huge question marks in net. But the defence, led by the ageless Mark Giordano, looks solid. Especially now that Michael Stone won’t be around to slow things down.

The guy who was most likely to fill Stone’s role was soon-to-be 21-year-old Juuso Valimaki, who got a 24-game audition last season. He would have played more, but he missed 28 games with a high ankle sprain and, when he came back, got sent to the AHL. Then he came back for two games in the Flames’ first-round clubbing at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche.

The Flames seem to really like him, even if the standard or underlying numbers don’t really tell the story of a future superstar. He’s big, he’s 20, and you can argue he should be on this roster, though mostly for lack of better options. He didn’t do great at 5-on-5 in particular, but a part of that was how he was used. (He actually did quite well playing with Stone, but again: usage.)

If you want to call a 6-foot-2 kid playing his first season in pro hockey derailed by an injury that’s famously tough to deal with a “project,” that seems fair. But the Flames are high on him nonetheless, which is why it sucks that he suffered an ACL tear during off-ice training that will probably keep him on the sidelines until the start of 2020 at a minimum.

The Flames will likely have to replace him, either with fellow prospect Oliver Kylington or a veteran signing. The latter path will be difficult because the Flames still haven’t re-signed Matt Tkachuk (expensive) or Andrew Mangiapane (not), and doing so would likely put them over the cap.

Because Valimaki is on his ELC, the relief they get from putting him on the LTIR is minimal, meaning if the Flames went out and got help, they’d likely have to find a veteran who’s still on the market to sign for the league minimum. Maybe a bought-out guy, but that might be a tough sell.

There has been rampant speculation all summer that the Flames might try to move a defender anyway, in theory to clear space for Valimaki, Kylington and Rasmus Andersson — who, unlike the other two, was actually really impressive in his first season with the big club. The obvious candidate here is TJ Brodie ($4.65-million AAV on an expiring deal, with an eight-team no-trade list). To a lesser extent, there’s Noah Hanifin ($4.95-million AAV but for five more seasons) or Travis Hamonic ($3.857ish-million AAV on an expiring deal).

One imagines the idea of trading a mid-tier defenceman is off the table now. So there’s also the idea that Michael Frolik ($4.3-million AAV, expiring deal, 10-team no-trade list) would be the one swapped. Makes sense since he’s clearly out of favour, but you’d need someone to hang on to a bunch of salary rather than just moving bad money around.

With that having been said, Brad Treliving really shouldn’t worry too much about what the absence of Valiamki will mean for his club. He was ready to take a step this year, sure, and it sucks that he’s hurt, but he was more or less a replacement-level defenceman. If you have to grin and bear it with an AHL call-up as your No. 7 for half the season, I’m not convinced they would see a huge downgrade from what was there last year. And last year, you’ll recall, the Flames had the best record in the Western Conference.

I said I thought the Flames’ defence was solid. I still think that, Valimaki injury or not, and it’s no knock on him to say that. You can have a lot of affinity for the tools he’s got, but given the shape the defence was in — not great, but certainly good — he was probably going to be a bottom-pair guy, and maybe their No. 4 if he took the great leap forward people seem to have been expecting.

You obviously never want to see a player get hurt and miss more than half the year. You definitely never want it for a highly touted kid who was about to spend his first full year in the NHL. But as far as it affects the Flames’ blue line, it’s far from the end of the world. Especially because you’re a phone call to David Schlemko away from (more than?) replacing his contribution.

If Valimaki can fully recover from this ACL tear, there’s no reason to believe the future is anything but bright. This is certainly a setback, but it’s not a crisis for the Flames.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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