The coming campaign was primed to be a big one for Juuso Valimaki. After skating in 24 regular season contests and two post-season outings last season, the Calgary Flames rearguard, a first-round pick, 17th overall, in 2017, was expected to become a lineup regular in 2019-20 after his stellar showing in a season split between the big club and their AHL squad.
But in the midst of his off-season preparation, Valimaki’s season has been derailed.
On Monday, the Flames announced the 20-year-old tore his right ACL and will be forced to go under the knife to repair the injury. And with no timeline for his return – it’s likely he’ll be sidelined well into the season – Calgary GM Brad Treliving said the search has to begin for a replacement. “We’re going to be in the market,” Treliving said, according to CalgaryFlames.com. “The good news is that we have some young guys that we think have taken some steps, but we’re certainly going to be looking at potential options on our blueline.”
As Treliving indicated, there are indeed options within the roster. Among those who could step in to fill Valimaki’s projected spot are 22-year-old Oliver Kylington, who saw 38 games with the Flames last season, and off-season signing Alexander Yelesin, who has spent the past three seasons in the KHL. But with some uncertainty about the readiness of either blueliner to take on a consistent big-league role, there’s a distinct possibility that Treliving and Co. will look outside the organization to patch the newfound hole on the blueline.
With that in mind, who could be among the top targets for Calgary as they look to shore up their defensive depth?
Ben Hutton – Unrestricted Free Agent
After failing to receive a qualifying offer from the Canucks, Hutton, 26, was eligible to hit the open market and it was believed there would be at least a few clubs lining up to give the blueliner a deal, even if just a one-year, show-me pact after he averaged upwards of 22 minutes per game with Vancouver. Six weeks into signing season, though, Hutton hasn’t been able to find a fit. But now that could change.
Not only do the Flames have some familiarity with Hutton, what with his having played for a division rival, but bringing him aboard might make sense as a way to add some scoring punch to the bottom pairing. He had five goals and 20 points in 69 games last season, will likely come at a cut rate – or less than his $2.8-million cap hit last season, which is important for Calgary as they inch closer to the spending limit – and he’d likely fare much better from an advanced statistics perspective in a more sheltered role with the Flames.
If nothing else, he might be worth a flyer.
Derek Forbort – Los Angeles Kings
The Kings have to be honest with themselves: they’re not destined for much beyond draft lottery contention this season. Thus, GM Rob Blake and Co. need to start thinking about the future and stockpiling assets. And one way to do that might be to flip Forbort, who was a 20-minute man last season, to the Flames while taking on some salary the other way – say, Michal Frolik and his $4.3-million cap hit – and asking for a pot-sweetening pick that can be used to benefit Los Angeles down the line.
Forbort, 27, was primarily a top-three rearguard last season with the Kings by necessity, which is to say he would probably do well both for the Flames and for himself further down the lineup in Calgary. And the benefit here is that his $2.525-million cap hit, while heftier than signing a bargain UFA, comes off the books next summer.
Joel Edmundson – St. Louis Blues
Edmundson isn’t a first-choice option for the Blues to send packing, but St. Louis has something of a logjam on the blueline and if the post-season is any indication, the 26-year-old isn’t at the top of coach Craig Berube’s list of defenders. He was scratched in two of the final four games of the Blues’ run to the Stanley Cup and the two contests he did play he saw little more than 16 minutes ice time. That’s total, not per game. With a new contact for captain Alex Pietrangelo on the horizon and a few other upcoming free agent concerns, the Blues might need to consider letting Edmundson walk at the end of next season, and that’s if he doesn’t leave on his own accord or test the open market as a UFA next summer.
With that in mind, maybe the Flames can pry Edmundson away from the Blues, and maybe St. Louis would be willing to make something work with some salary coming back their way to alleviate the cap crunch. It would take some creativity from both parties, but it could work.
Carl Gunnarsson – St. Louis Blues
If it’s not Edmundson who goes, it could potentially be Gunnarsson. Yes, he just re-signed on a two-year pact and the veteran is getting up there in age – he’ll turn 33 this season – but his salary is easier to navigate at $1.75 million and he could be easier to get out of St. Louis than Edmundson, who, though he is going to have to fight for his spot, has more long-term upside for the Blues. Add to it that Gunnarsson could find himself fighting for minutes with the emergence of Vince Dunn, that Jake Walman could be ready to take the next step and that St. Louis inked Derrick Pouliot this off-season, and maybe the best move the Blues could make is to leverage Gunnarsson’s contract and the Flames’ needs into an asset or two while clearing up the blueline.
Joe Morrow – Unrestricted Free Agent
The more notable names on the free agent market include Jake Gardiner, Dion Phaneuf and Andrew MacDonald, but for various reasons – namely cost, age and effectiveness – none of the three are going to work in Calgary. What could work, however, is signing a capable bottom-pairing defenseman who can skate well and be a power play asset in a pinch. And, would you look at that, there’s one on the market in Morrow.
The 26-year-old, who was a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, 23rd overall, in 2011, hasn’t been able to live up to his billing, but he proved himself as a decent depth option with the Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens over the past two seasons. He’s not going to log big minutes, but with a top four that consists of Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Noah Hanifin and Travis Hamonic, that’s not the player the Flames are necessarily after. On a one-year, cap-friendly pact, Morrow is worth kicking the tires on.
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