Why Flames’ Valimaki is unlikely to make his return this summer

Juuso-Valimaki

Calgary Flames' Juuso Valimaki, right, controls the puck in front of Anaheim Ducks' Patrick Eaves (18) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, in Anaheim, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

The chances of Juuso Valimaki being part of the Calgary Flames‘ playoff picture are slim.

Even if he’s given a clean bill of health by doctors following 10 months of rehab on his surgically repaired knee, his participation could come at a steep price.

Should the Flames’ prized 21-year-old defenceman step onto the ice for a single play-in or playoff game, it could ultimately cost the club the services of its captain, Mark Giordano.

Here’s how:

The Seattle expansion draft goes next summer and the Flames will be allowed to protect three defencemen, seven forwards and a netminder.

At this point Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson are locks at the back end, given their age, skill and long-term deals.

Valimaki would be a cinch too, but by missing an entire season this year he wouldn’t have enough NHL service to be eligible. Thus, he wouldn’t have to be protected, and the Flames could theoretically protect Giordano instead.

“It’s pretty cut and dried that the eligibility rules on the expansion draft say that to be eligible you have to have played three years pro,” said GM Brad Treliving. “Basically, if you play an NHL game that counts as a year pro. By the letter of the law if he doesn’t play a year of pro – and not that we’re sitting him out – he doesn’t qualify for the expansion.”

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Valimaki only played 24 games with the Flames in 2018-19 before being sidelined with a torn ACL suffered last summer that has kept him out to date. If he doesn’t play this year he’ll enter his second year as a pro next season.

Valimaki’s rehab was progressing nicely up until the season was paused, and he was even allowed to continue skating under the guidance of team medical staff for a few weeks after NHL play stopped. He returned to Finland soon thereafter, and although he’s since returned to skate in groups of 12 with teammates at the Saddledome, his participation to date has been informal, meaning he has yet to undergo official testing by team doctors.

“The time frame is almost a year for this injury – 10 months if all goes well, so you can be healed, but you haven’t played in a year,” said Treliving, noting the team’s first-round pick in 2017 had ACL surgery late last August.

“I don’t know if he’s healthy [enough] to play.”

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Even if he is, there’s very little reason to believe the Flames would put him into the lineup unless they had a raft of injuries and the team was progressing deep into the playoffs.

Otherwise, there are nine healthy options ahead of Valimaki on the depth chart thanks to a few deadline deals that landed the club Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson. Also ahead of him are Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Hanifin, Andersson, Oliver Kylington and Michael Stone.

A 10th option could be farmhand Alexander Yelesin, who played four games with the big club this year and will be one of the team’s Black Aces.

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Even if Valimaki is given a clean bill of health, why not give him extra time to heal and prepare for next season?

As talented as he is, it’s a lot to ask him to jump right back into NHL action when the season is on the line and the game’s intensity is ratcheted up.

Assuming the team re-signs either Hamonic, Brodie or another top-four defenceman after this season, they too will garner serious consideration to be protected over Giordano, who will be 37 at the time of the expansion draft, with just one year left on his contract at $6.75 million.

It’s hard to fathom the Flames would jeopardize at least two of those options so Valimaki can play a few games this season.

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