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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Six-Year-Plan: Two New Additions Bolster Flames Defensive Corp Now and for Later



Flames general manager Brad Treliving breezed into the Windy City this week with his eyes affixed squarely on one thing -- adding a top four defenceman.

He added two instead.

One for now. One for later.

On Friday night at the United Center, with the 16th overall pick in the draft, Calgary selected strapping 18-year-old Finnish defenceman Juuso Valimaki.

Then, on Saturday morning, Treliving pulled the trigger on a deal for 26-year-old Islanders defenceman Travis Hamonic.


Now Playing: Travis Hamonic



Since arriving for good in the Islanders line-up as a 20-year-old in November 2010, Hamonic has been a fixture in the team's top four.

Last year, a season ravaged by injury, was the first time in his career he has averaged less than 21 minutes per night. Over his seven NHL seasons -- all of them spent with the Islanders -- his time-on-ice peaked at 25:01 (11th in the NHL) in 2013-14.

Solidly built at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, the right-shooting defenceman hails from St. Malo, Manitoba. He played his major junior with the Moose Jaw Warriors right up until late in his fourth and final season when he was dealt to Brandon to help them in their playoff push.

Joining a Wheat Kings team that featured Micheal Ferland, Hamonic had an impactful couple months in his home province, helping Brandon reach the conference final before they were eliminated by the Calgary Hitmen.


Expect a Bounce-Back Season

Hamonic is coming off an injury-riddled season in which three separate injuries -- thumb, knee, wrist -- limited him to 49 games.

The team is obviously counting on him rebounding and getting right back to being that very reliable player he has been over the years.

Giving you an indication of how much he was counted on by coach Jack Capuano, the season prior Hamonic led the Islanders in ice time in the regular season (23:49) and was second to Nick Leddy in the post-season (26:08) as he helped New York reach the second round in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Playing a style of game that revolves more around the defensive side of the puck, while adding a little jam, it should make for an ideal complement to TJ Brodie, allowing the silky smooth-skating blueliner to confidently dart up ice and join the rush at will, knowing that someone has his back.



Stuck with the slow-footed and less reliable Dennis Wideman much of last season, Brodie was a shell of his normal self. His dynamic 200-foot game had disappeared almost completely until Calgary parachuted in Michael Stone at the trade deadline. Just like that, the old Brodie re-appeared and the Flames promptly reeled off 10 straight victories.

So in a way, one could argue that not only does today's move add a solid second-pairing piece in Hamonic, there's also collateral benefit in that it should give you the other far better version of Brodie.

The other attraction and it's a factor that can't be underestimated is Hamonic has three years remaining on a cap-friendly deal that pays him an average annual value of $3.8 million. The more key pieces you can have on value contracts, the better as the Flames still have other business to attend to. e.g. Mikael Backlund is eligible for an extension as of July 1.


Quality Human

The addition of Hamonic also means Calgary's line-up now boasts the NHL's last two Foundation Player Award winners, which is an annual award that recognizes humanitarian work. Last year, captain Mark Giordano won it. Last Tuesday, it was Hamonic -- an Islanders alternate captain -- who was recognized for his exceptional work in that area.

Good people may not directly equate to wins but you sure like to have them on your team. Whether it's in a dressing room or a company boardroom, there's something to be said about what's possible as a team when you surround yourself with people that are of high character and in it for greater reasons than just themselves.

For more on Hamonic's story, this ESPN special from a couple years back is a highly recommended watch.



Coming Later: Juuso Valimaki



Honing His Craft on the 200x85

Valimaki came over to North America two years ago after being selected 14th overall by the Tri-City Americans in the 2015 CHL import draft.

After a year of being here on his own, last August he was joined in Washington state by his family as his Mom and two hockey-playing younger brothers also uprooted their lives in Finland and crossed the Atlantic.

Invited to live with the Valimaki family was fellow 2017 draft prospect and Tri-City teammate Michael Rasmussen (9th overall to Detroit).

Apparently, home cooking was good for the left-shooting blueliner, who stands 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds. In his sophomore season in the WHL, he more than doubled his goal total from his rookie campaign and nearly doubled his point total. His points-per-game led all CHL 2017 draft eligible defencemen.

CHL - Best Draft-Eligible Defencemen, Points Per Game

1. Juuso Valimaki, Tri-City (WHL), 19-42-61 in 60 gm, 1.02
2. Thomas Gregoire, Sherbrooke (QMJHL), 10-54-64 in 66 gm, 0.97
3. Connor Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL), 7-54-61 in 67 gm, 0.91
4. Cal Foote, Kelowna (WHL), 6-51-57 in 71 gm, 0.80
5. Artyom Minulin, Swift Current (WHL), 8-42-50 in 70 gm, 0.71


The fourth defenceman off the board, Valimaki draws comparisons to Olli Juolevi for obvious reasons. They're both highly regarded 6-foot-2 left-shooting defencemen from Finland.

Now offensive counting numbers certainly aren't everything for a guy that plies his trade on the blueline, but side-by-side, it does make for an interesting comparison with the caveat added in that Valimaki is a year younger than Juolevi, who was selected fifth overall by Vancouver last June.



Plenty to Like

While his offensive totals speak volumes, there is far more to his game than that.

Here are snippets from what Future Considerations had to say in this year's draft guide. Valimaki was ranked 12th in their final rankings.
  • "Smooth-skating, two-way defender who excels with not only finesse but in his ability to play a heavy and reliable defensive game."
  • "Moves extremely well for his size and can absolutely fly at an impressive tempo when he wants to apply pressure."
  • "While not an overly aggressive player, he gets in opponents' heads by not relinquishing an inch of free ice and consistently causing frustration with his ability to remain in great position."
  • "His ability to defend the rush is superior and he knows when and where to make his move on the puck carrier." 

The other thing that jumps off the page is his obvious leadership qualities.

A veteran of international play having been a fixture on Finland's national team at every age group, he captained the U16 team in 2014. Two years later he captained his U18 team to a gold medal in the 2016 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.

Last year was his first on Finland's U20 team at the World Junior Championship. As they look to bounce back from a disappointing tournament, expect Valimaki to be on that team once again this year. Heck, if the pattern holds, it's also time for him to wear the 'C' again.


The Smashville Model

What Treliving has accomplished today is established a vaunted top-four on the back end that has the ability to match up with any quartet in the league.

Rasmus Andersson
That type of foundation is a similar philosophy to how Nashville is built with PK Subban and Mattias Ekholm on one pairing and Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis on the other. That group, which impressed throughout the playoffs, was the reason the Predators got within two victories of winning the Stanley Cup.

Being able to roll out a dependable, trusted duo for 45-50 minutes of every game is a coach's dream and you can bet Glen Gulutzan is smiling today. Having that foundation in place allows you to mitigate your risk big time, especially on the road, and it's how a team takes that next stride to becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

To recap: Locked in for the next three seasons minimum are Giordano (5 years remaining at $6.75 million), Dougie Hamilton (4 years remaining at $5.75 million), Brodie (3 years remaining at $4.65 million) and Hamonic (3 years remaining at $3.8 million).

When there finally becomes a vacancy in that group, potentially in three years time, Valimaki along with 20-year-old top prospect Rasmus Andersson will play an integral role in ensuring that this elite-top-four model is one that can be sustained indefinitely, well beyond when one/some of the current cast move on.


Future Gazing

Squinting your eyes and peering way, way out in the distance, here is how the Flames top four defence could evolve over the next six seasons.

TJ Brodie
The disclaimer with this and you're not going to like it. This is a path that promotes patience and player development, which fans may find a buzz-kill on the day after the drafting of Valimaki.

But I'm of the mindset you set up players for success and incrementally move them up the line only as they've proven themselves to be ready. If Valimaki can continue his current trajectory, his next four seasons could see him groomed for an arrival in Calgary's top four in 2021-22. It's not as far away as you think.

As I see it:
  • 2017-18 - WHL (not old enough to play in AHL)
  • 2018-19 - AHL
  • 2019-20 - AHL to start, with call-ups to the NHL
  • 2020-21 - NHL on third pairing
  • 2021-22 - NHL in top four

Excited fans will want to see Valimaki make an impact in the NHL tomorrow, but the smart approach is a cautious approach. As an organization, never rush a player and be realistic when you're forecasting your future line-ups. Allow him the ideal development path and if he forges his way into the top four discussion sooner, that's always a great 'problem' to have.

Two other things to note with the projections below:
  • I have Brodie re-signing with Calgary after his current contract expires. That's obviously a complete guess but let's roll with that. Plus, his left-hand shot sets the team up better.
  • I have Hamilton becoming a free agent when his deal expires to much fan disappointment, same with Hamonic. It's the reality of the business in a salary cap sport. Have to strategically turn over the roster and inject cheaper options as you go. (Ideally, those cheaper options push for a top-4 spot ahead of schedule too, allowing you to move pending UFAs for other assets.)

2017-18

Giordano (33) - Hamilton (24)
Brodie (27) - Hamonic (27)

2018-19

Giordano (34) - Hamilton (25)
Brodie (28) - Hamonic (28)

2019-20

Giordano (35) - Hamilton (26)
Brodie (29) - Hamonic (29)

2020-21

Brodie (30) - Hamilton (27)
Giordano (36) - Andersson (23)

2021-22

Valimaki (23) - Brodie (31)
Giordano (37) - Andersson (24)

2022-23

Valimaki (24) - Andersson (25)
Brodie (32) - Fox (24)



Final Word

In 2008, Brodie and Hamonic were both part of that elite draft year for defencemen in which picks 2-5 after Steven Stamkos were all defencemen -- Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, Luke Schenn.

The trend continued throughout the draft including Hamonic selected in the second round (53rd overall) and Brodie picked in the fourth round (114th).

Part of the same draft class, now they'll share the same blueline and that could be the case for a while as they look like the ideal complement for each other.

While there's understandably going to be angst around the volume of draft picks that were traded away -- one first and two seconds with just a fourth rounder coming back -- what can't be forgotten is the team's current prospect base is still intact.

This now includes Valimaki, who calls Victor Hedman the NHL player he patterns his game off.

So while the draft picks absent in the next couple drafts could have ramification five or six years down the road, that's not the focus. This is a team very much setting itself up to win right now, not later.



And with success, the value of those picks surrendered diminishes also.

The way I see it, if on a team featuring the likes of Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Backlund, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, the strength of the team is its defence, that speaks volumes about the balanced team the GM is constructing.

The linchpin in all this will always be the play from the goaltenders, but by strengthening the insulation around the crease as Treliving has done, you are better setting up your goaltenders up for success. Mike Smith doesn't need go out there and be Carey Price. He just needs to be the same Mike Smith that gave a not-very-good Coyotes team solid goaltending for many years.

And two years from now if Tyler Parsons is still Tyler Parsons, then Calgary will really be in business.





By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.

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