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Friday, June 30, 2017

State of the Roster: On Eve of July 1, Flames Needs Down to Perhaps Just One Piece



One player needed and $3 million to spend.

That's what I've got things whittled down to as Brad Treliving has been operating lately like he's got some serious plans for the Canada Day long weekend and is anxious to hit the highway.

A barrage of transactions by the general manager over the last couple weeks has the Calgary Flames 2017-18 roster rapidly coming into focus. That, plus a glimpse into the future.

On the eve of the NHL's annual July 1 free agent frenzy, here's a recap of the parade of players that have joined (or re-joined) the organization lately:
  • June 17 - Traded for G Mike Smith to be the team's starter
  • June 23 - Drafted D Juuso Valimaki 16th overall in NHL draft
  • June 24 - Traded for D Travis Hamonic to round out the top four
  • June 27 - Signed highly-touted college free agent RW Spencer Foo
  • June 29 - Re-signed veteran RW Kris Versteeg
  • June 29 - Traded for G Eddie Lack to be the back-up
  • June 30 - Re-signed D Michael Stone

That's a lot of significant pieces in a short period of time.


Happy to be Back

Stone's decision to re-sign was the latest announcement and it was also one of the simplest decisions. For one, his wife is from Calgary and they spend their off-seasons in the city. Secondly, he knows the calibre of team Treliving is constructing.

"A goal right when I got traded here was to stay in Calgary and not only for the fact that we're close to family, but it's a really good hockey club," said Stone, who just turned 27 earlier in June. "That's something I haven't been part of a whole lot."

For Friday's announcement, Stone stopped by the Saddledome in person with his wife and adorable, wide-eyed nine-month old twins -- one boy and one girl -- both outfitted in red knitted Flames sweaters.

Stone says for himself, recalling when he first arrived in town last March, it is rejuvenating to be on a competitive team again. He added that it will be no different for his once-again teammate, the ultra competitive Mike Smith.

"When I got here, it felt like a new season, a fresh start, we were pushing for something," Stone says. "In Arizona, it was like let's get through the rest of the season.

"Not mailing it in, but you know you're out and there's a bunch of uncertainty. Coming here, you get a jolt of energy and it's exciting to come to the rink every day."

With the injury history for Travis Hamonic, who the last four seasons has missed 13, 11, 10 and 33 games, and with Calgary clearly determined to become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, Stone's arrival gives the Flames tremendous depth on the back end. In addition to being a solid third pairing presence, he is also a guy as he demonstrated last season that can be elevated into the top-four in the event of an injury.

You need that type of depth if you view yourself as a contender and that security comes at a price. Stone's deal pays him an annual average value of $3.5 million over the next three seasons.


Remaining Need

As for the type of player the GM still has remaining on his shopping list, coach Glen Gulutzan peeled back the curtain a little bit during a radio visit with Dean Molberg and Ryan Pinder on Sportsnet960 radio on Friday morning.

To summarize their conversation in case you missed it, Gulutzan hinted that the team is looking for a bottom-six winger, who is a right-hand shot and can take draws. Not necessarily a centre, but more so a winger who can take face-offs in certain situations, similar to what Troy Brouwer does in sometimes taking the draw when he's on his strong side.

With that information in mind, I set out to build the rest of the 23-man squad that would surround that one missing piece.

The website Cap Friendly is a phenomenal tool and I use it all the time. But at the same time, the presence of pending RFAs and players listed in the minors when they should be listed on the NHL roster (and sometimes vice versa) still leaves me scribbling out a bunch of additional math on the napkin beside me. In an attempt to crystallize the team's situation right up to the moment, I have taken a stab at building the Flames roster as it might look on Oct. 4 when Calgary visits Edmonton to open up the regular season.

This includes projections as to who will be on the team and who will not -- and my view likely varies from yours -- and don't get too hung up on the actual line combinations as we know those are likely to change. I also had to stickhandle around a handful of restricted free agents.

Determined to attach a dollar figure to each of them, highlighted in yellow is my guess at what their AAV may come in at this season. In some cases (e.g. Bennett, Ferland), I factored in big raises. In other instances (e.g. Lazar, Kulak), I basically assigned them their qualifying offer.

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NHL Salary Cap in 2017-18
$75 million

Flames Current Payroll 
$72 million
(22 players - 13 forwards, 7 defencemen, 2 goaltenders)

Available Cap Space
$3 million 
(1 player - 1 forward)

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Breakdown by Position

-------------------------------------------------------

Forwards
$38.17 million
(13 spots taken, 1 spot to fill)


Starting 12

Gaudreau (L) $6.75M - Monahan (L) $6.38M - Ferland (L) $2.1M?
Tkachuk (L) $925K - Backlund (L) $3.58M - Frolik (L) $4.3M
Versteeg (R) $1.75M - Bennett (L) $2.55M? - __________ (x) $x
Stajan (L) $3.13M - Lazar (R) $875K? - Brouwer (R) $4.5M

Extras

C/RW Hamilton (R) $612K
RW Hathaway (R) $715K?


Other Candidates
 (not factored into the payroll)

RW Foo (R) $925K
C Jankowski (L) $925K
LW Shinkaruk (L) $863K


------------------------------------------------------------

Defence
$25.78 million
(7 spots taken, 0 spots to fill)


Starting Six

Giordano (L) $6.75M - Hamilton (R) $5.75M
Brodie (L) $4.65M - Hamonic (R) $3.86M
Kulak (L) $660K? - Stone (R) $3.5M

Extra

Bartkowski (L) $612K


Other Candidates
 (not factored into the payroll)

Andersson (R) $756K
Wotherspoon (L) $800K?


------------------------------------------------------------

Goaltenders
$5.63 million
(2 spots taken, 0 spots to fill)


Tandem

Smith $4.25M
Lack $1.38M


------------------------------------------------------------

Other Expenses
$2.42 million


Buyout Costs
$1.82 million
(Raymond $1.05M, Bouma $667K, Murphy $100K)


2016-17 Bonus Overage
$600,000

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UFA Names to Watch For

Once you drill into it, there's aren't a whole lot of high-end names out there amongst the UFAs, who meet the description of what Calgary is looking for. At least not many big-name impact types.

Here are five names to consider:
  • Shane Doan, 40 - Has the Arizona connection, but may be too old for what Calgary is building.
  • Jarome Iginla, 40 - See above. A nostalgic thought by longtime Flames fans, but I don't see it.
  • Patrick Marleau, 37 - Ticks all the boxes but may be too pricey. Plus a return to SJ beckons.
  • Patrick Sharp, 35 - Limited to 8 goals and 48 games last season, but did score 20 the year prior.
  • Justin Williams, 35 - Mr. Clutch would be a nice add but rumblings are he wants to stick out East.

Of course, there is always the trade route, which Treliving admits he's been more focused on this off-season. But Calgary has jettisoned a lot of draft picks out the exit already in assembling the current roster and their lottery ticket supply is getting awfully thin.

If they don't find the right deal either, being a few million under the salary cap isn't a terrible thing. It's incumbent on Treliving to not fear that spending burning a hole in his pocket. Save it for later. The Flames would then look to promote one of their prospects already in the system and knocking on the door (e.g. Spencer Foo, Mark Jankowski).

So are you ready for hockey to start up again? We may still be a few months out from the games beginning, but the roster is looking pretty darn close to ready.



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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      Thursday, June 29, 2017

      Is Johnson Buffalo Bound? Six Other Options for the Flames as a Back-up Plan for a Back-up



      For four weeks, Chad Johnson was truly living his dream.

      In a well-documented stretch from November 15 through December 10 that was acknowledged by everyone associated with the organization as having saved Calgary's season, Johnson started 13 of 15 games and went 11-2-0 with a league-best .946 save percentage.

      This was absolutely perfect for Johnson.

      Here he was, playing in his hometown and being hailed as the man, as Calgary scratched and clawed its way back into the playoff race and out of that cavernous hole they had dug by being the NHL's worst club in the opening month.

      But after back-to-back four-goal-against losses opened up the door again for Brian Elliott, the two split playing time over the next 5-6 weeks.


      Start of the Downwards Spiral

      The good start to the season for Johnson began to unravel on Jan. 19. First, there was four goals against on 21 shots in a home-ice loss to Nashville. Two nights later on an intense Saturday night at the Saddledome, he surrendered three goals on four shots and was promptly pulled less than six minutes into an ugly loss to the rival Edmonton Oilers.

      Playing time was hard to come by after that and when his intermittent starts came, he didn't seize the moment. From Jan. 19 through the end of the regular season, Johnson won only two of nine starts -- both on the road -- and his .856 save percentage was worst in the league.

      With Mike Smith brought in from Arizona to be the undisputed No. 1, it appears the vagabond-like Johnson will once again be spending his off-season in search of a new opportunity, one in which more playing time could be had.


      It was with Buffalo two years ago where Johnson made a career-high 40 starts. Robin Lehner is expected to be the Sabres starter but it's a team familiar with Johnson, who fashioned a .920 save percentage in his one season there.

      Still technically Arizona property until July 1 (thanks to the Smith trade in which the Coyotes needed Johnson in return to have a goalie to protect per expansion draft requirements), we won't learn anything for certain for a couple days yet. But assuming Johnson is on the move once again, who does that leave for back-up options for general manager Brad Treliving?

      Six names to consider are listed below. But first, what does Calgary have in Smith? I asked Treliving that question on Monday when the Flames new goaltender was introduced to the media.


      What Smith Gives the Flames

      "We looked at all different options," said Treliving. "It's having that guy that has been there and done that. We know he's 35 but the one thing with Mike is he's a specimen. He looks after himself and it's not like he's been playing 60 games since he was 19 or 20 and came into the league, he was a late starter."

      It's true. Smith started his career playing two seasons with Dallas before spending the next three-plus years in Tampa Bay. It wasn't until he arrived in Arizona at age 29 that he started shouldering the workload of a true No. 1. Prior to that point, he had never started more than 40 games in a season and only three times had started more than 20.

      "There's a mindset that No. 1 guys have," the Flames GM continued. "It's a hard position. Having to do it everyday. Some days it doesn't go great and the pressure that comes with it. Having to deal with that No. 1 mentality is a different thing too and he's done that. He's been there and done that."

      Now it's about finding the right guy to pair with him. You hope it's for only 20-25 games as Smith has started 55-plus games in four of the last six seasons (and 60-plus in three of them). However, injuries happen and two years ago, for example, he was limited to 32 starts.

      "Having that guy that you can roll out there every night is important," says Treliving. "But I also think that today's game, the way the schedules have gotten jammed, the crampedness, even in a non-Olympic or non-World Cup year, we're still looking at how do we best complement Mike."



      Six Back-up Goalie Candidates

      In no particular order, here are six goaltenders who might be considerations for the back-up role in Calgary.


      1. Eddie Lack, Carolina

      Age: 29
      Contract Situation: 1 year left on 2Y/$5.5M deal ($2.75M AAV)
      2016-17: 18 starts, 8-7-3, 2.64 GAA, .902 SV%

      Why Available: The move from Vancouver to Carolina hasn't gone well. In his two seasons with the Hurricanes, his .902 save percentage ranks him 51st out of 52 goalies with 40-or-more starts. With the acquisition of Scott Darling this summer, no longer is he viewed as Cam Ward's successor and instead he's on the outs with a Darling-Ward tandem likely the plan. Acquisition price would be minimal if anything at all. One even wonders if this is an opportunity for Calgary to move out a contract such as Lance Bouma's $2.2 million and open up a 4th line role for a prospect like Garnet Hathaway.

      Reason for Interest: Once a highly regarded prospect, Lack was solid in his two seasons with Vancouver, which came with Flames coach Glen Gulutzan an assistant coach on the Canucks. His .917 save percentage in 72 starts from 2013 to 2015 ranked him 20th of 47 goaltenders with 40-or-more starts over that span. Not only is Lack available, Carolina is nowhere near the salary cap ceiling and is in a position to eat some of his $2.75M salary, which they will surely have to do (CBA permits them to pay as much as half) in order to move him.

      Reason to be Cautious: Which is the real Lack? The Vancouver version or the Carolina version? These last two seasons haven't painted a very pretty picture and one wonders if Calgary feels they could trust the quirky Swede. In carving him up last March (see clip below), exasperated Canes coach Bill Peters was certainly at wit's end.




      2. Philipp Grubauer, Washington

      Age: 25
      Contract Situation: RFA. Just completed 2Y/$1.5M deal (750,000 AAV)
      2016-17: 19 starts, 13-6-2, 2.04 GAA, .926 SV%

      Why Available: Prospect Pheonix Copley, 25, re-acquired in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade, just signed a two-year deal. Coming off an excellent season in the AHL, he appears to be NHL-ready. With Grubauer in need of a new deal, the arbitration-eligible pending RFA is set for a raise and how much does the cap-crunched Caps want to pay a Braden Holtby back-up.

      Reason for Interest: He's young, he's put up solid numbers in his 51 career NHL starts (.923 SV%) and it would give the Flames yet another potential goaltender of the future.

      Reason to be Cautious: He will likely be expensive to acquire. With Copley not waiver-eligible until 2018-19, Washington does not need to move on from Grubauer right now and they will be quite content to bring him back -- and it sounds like that's their plan -- unless they get an offer they can't refuse. In particular, having lost Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft and with pending UFA Karl Alzner likely not returning, the Caps are seeking a top-four defenceman and Calgary's not a compatible trade partner in that regard.


      3. Anders Nilsson, Buffalo

      Age: 27
      Contract Situation: UFA. Just completed 1Y/$1M deal
      2016-17: 23 starts, 10-10-4, 2.67 GAA, .923 SV%

      Why Available: A pending UFA on July 1, the towering 6-foot-6 Nilsson will be looking to join his fifth NHL organization since being drafted by the Islanders in the third round in 2009. The Swede has also made stops with Edmonton, St. Louis and last year he played in Buffalo.

      Reason for Interest: He's still relatively young, he's coming off his best season statistically -- albeit a small sample size -- and as a free agent, there would be no acquisition cost. The latter is a good thing for the draft pick-deprived Flames. In addition to last season, two years ago when he went to the KHL for a season, he turned in a .936 save percentage with the Kazan Ak-Bars.

      Reason to be Cautious: There's always a red flag when over a four-year span, a player has been with four different organizations and also spent a season in the KHL. Would there be enough trust in Nilsson to bring him in to back-up Smith, a responsibility that could mean 30-or-more starts if Smith gets injured again? Also, prior to last season, he had underwhelmed. From 2011-12 to 2015-16, Nilsson's .900 save percentage ranked him 74th out of 78 goalies with 40-or-more starts.


      4. Jonathan Bernier, Anaheim

      Age: Turns 29 in August
      Contract Situation: UFA. Just completed 2Y/$8.3M deal ($4.15M AAV)
      2016-17: 33 starts, 21-7-4, 2.50 GAA, .915 SV%

      Why Available: A pending UFA on July 1, who is stuck behind John Gibson in Anaheim, Bernier will likely be looking to find a new situation. He should not command anywhere near what his last deal was worth at over $4 million. For a reduced price, would he be willing to sign for a couple years to bridge the gap to the prospects in the Flames system.

      Reason for Interest: Bernier will likely never justify being selected 11th overall by Los Angeles in the 2006 draft, but he's coming off a solid year. Taking over for Gibson for the final month last season when the Ducks starter got hurt, Bernier went 11-0-2 from March 7 through the end of the year and was instrumental in them winning a fifth straight Pacific Division title. He's proven he can be a decent back-up with an ability to be the No. 1 if injuries strike..

      Reason to be Cautious: How much money might Bernier be looking for and is it prohibitive. With better back-up situations out there (e.g. Philadelphia) in which he would be looking at more playing time and a better shot at taking over as the No. 1, he might price himself out of Calgary's back-up goalie budget. Plus, after a great season in Toronto in 2013-14, the last two were mediocre so you wonder to some degree what you would get with Bernier.


      5. Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey

      Age: Turns 28 in July
      Contract Situation: UFA. Just completed a 2Y/$1.45M deal ($725K AAV)
      2016-17: 23 starts, 8-13-3, 2.64 GAA, .916 SV%

      Note: Kinkaid has signed with NJ and is no longer available.


      Why Available: Not going to see much playing time anytime soon if he sticks around New Jersey, the back-up goaltender to Cory Schneider the past three seasons has a chance to hit the open market on July 1 and you would expect him to explore what's out there. The Devils also have Scott Wedgewood as a potential internal solution to replace Kinkaid.

      Reason for Interest: While not spectacular, Kinkaid has played well in his limited NHL action in his career. Adding up his three seasons, he's cobbled together a .912 save percentage with last year's .916 being his career-best. The native of New York, who played two years of NCAA hockey at Union College, has established himself as a solid back-up. His .923 even-strength save percentage over the past three seasons ranks 26th out of 56 goalies with 50-or-more starts. No acquisition cost with him a UFA is another attraction.

      Reason to be Cautious: The body of work for Kinkaid still isn't huge -- just 56 starts in his NHL career. Like many of the names on the list, do you trust him enough to bring him in to complement Smith knowing that while you want Smith to play 60-65 games, he could play only 40-45 games if his aging chassis ends up injured.


      6. David Rittich, Calgary

      Age: Turns 25 in August
      Contract Situation: RFA. Just completed his one-year ELC.
      2016-17: 31 games (AHL), 15-11-1, 2.27 GAA, .924 SV%

      Why Available: Rittich is already in the Flames system. After a couple seasons playing in the main Czech league, Calgary signed him as a free agent last spring and brought him over to North America. In splitting time with Jon Gillies in Stockton, Rittich posted the better numbers. He ranked second among rookies in goals-against and save percentage and was tied for second overall with five shutouts.

      Reason for Interest: He was very good most of last season in coming in and stealing playing time away from Gillies. Over the last two-thirds of the year, it was basically a 50-50 split in playing time between the two and in the playoffs, Rittich also shone in starting games 3-5 of the Heat's heartbreaking five-game opening round loss to San Jose. With Gillies just one year removed from major hip surgery, Rittich is considered the most ready right now of the team's internal options.

      Reason to be Cautious: When he was signed, Rittich came advertised as raw but with high potential. Given his upside and the possibility he might very well be the prospect that is ready for the NHL next, the best move for his development after only making 29 starts last season would be more playing time in the AHL rather than sitting on the bench as a back-up in Calgary. Sure, he was great some nights but on other nights was not so great. Treliving has hinted this off-season that he feels the best place for all of the Flames young goaltenders would be in the minors where they can continue to get regular playing time, work on their consistency and build up experience.


      Final Word

      I know that plan 'A' has always been to have two established NHL veterans as Calgary's two goaltenders for this season. The organization is excited about what their reserve list looks like at that position with Rittich, Gillies and Tyler Parsons, who should turn pro this fall, but none of them are ready yet for full-time NHL employment.

      One suggestion has been to rotate Rittich and Gillies so they can play in the AHL when they're not sitting on the bench in the NHL, but that doesn't change the fact that Calgary will need its No. 2 goaltender to play 20-25 games minimum and possibly more if an aging Smith ends up on the IR at some point, something you have to factor in when you're talking about a goalie of his age.

      As I'm sure you've noticed, this has been a city that has been very hard on its goaltending ever since Miikka Kiprusoff exited town four years ago. Playing in a hockey-rabid Canadian market is difficult enough, the level of scrutiny on that particular position is that much more. It is a lot of pressure to heap upon a young prospect and not something you want to subject them to that until you know they're ready. Otherwise, you could really do long-term harm.

      With Calgary arming up this summer with the addition of Travis Hamonic on the blueline, this is an indication that the Flames see themselves as a team that can make noise this season and be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. I'm not convinced, an untested, not-yet-ready prospect as the team's back-up is a path Treliving will feel comfortable going down.



      Now there are other goaltenders available beyond the names listed. Veterans available include Ryan Miller and Steve Mason, but this role probably isn't what they would be seeking. There are also other options like Darcy Kuemper, Antti Niemi or Ondrej Pavelec but like most of the guys listed above, each of these choices certainly do come with their own warts.

      Who will emerge? Who knows, but we should find out soon. Potentially the back-up goaltender's identity will be learned within the next 48 hours with the annual free agent frenzy officially arriving at 10 a.m. MT on Saturday, July 1.

      Heck, maybe it will still be Johnson.

      For my money, bringing back Johnson would still be the option that tops all of the others in terms of experience, potential, personality fit and acquisition cost.

      But if Johnson has decided he wants to move on, or the club has decided to move on from him, then it could very well come down to the best of the rest.




      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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          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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            Monday, June 19, 2017

            FF80F Podcast: Episode 14 - Focusing in on the 2017 NHL Draft with Aaron Vickers



            After a three-month hiatus that was far too long, the podcast is back as Aaron Vickers stopped by to chat about the upcoming 2017 NHL Draft.

            Frequently spotted hanging around the Saddledome, Vickers wears a couple of hats. He covers the Flames for NHL.com. More pertinent to this podcast, he is also the longtime managing editor of Future Considerations, which is a popular draft publication that scouts, profiles and ranks draft-eligible players.

            In fact, listen to the podcast and you will get 20 percent off your purchase of the 2017 Future Considerations Draft Guide.


            Episode 14 - June 19, 2017  (1:23:07 running time)


            Listen Now via SoundCloud


            0:00 - Segment 1 - Introduction
            • Aaron's background
            • Glimpse into his recent trip to France/Germany to cover the World Championships

            7:42 - Segment 2 - Draft Overview
            • Origin of Future Considerations
            • How the scouting staff pulls the guide together
            • Assessing the quality of 2017 Draft and what are its nuances

            21:17 - Segment 3 - Notable Names and Top Names
            • Notable family ties in this year's draft
            • Going down the list of top kids and how might the draft unfold
            • Identifying some names to watch for, who might move up or fall

            40:44 - Segment 4 - Revisiting Flames Recent Draft History
            • Revisiting Brad Treliving's first three drafts as Flames GM
            • Calgary's situation heading into the 2017 draft

            53:44 - Segment 5 - Talking Calgary specific
            • Discussing possible Flames targets at pick No. 16
            • Assessing the Curtis Lazar and Michael Stone trades
            • Late round targets and how to best approach late picks

            71:35 - Segment 6 - Listener Q&A
            • Answering questions submitted to Facebook


            Options to Download/Listen

            You are now able to download Flames at 80 Decibels from all your favourite podcast locations, as well as through your regular podcast player or app. Here are a few of the more popular spots where you can download the latest episode:

            One popular question I get from newbies in the podcast world is when do people listen to podcasts? Well, if you have BlueTooth in your car as I do, I'll stream it from my phone onto my car stereo and listen as a I run around town doing errands, etc.

            If you're travelling, download it to your iPod and listen on the flight. Or while you go and walk the dogs. I have heard from people who have warehouse jobs and listen to them at work. There are endless possibilities.


            Rate the Podcast on iTunes

            Have you enjoyed the podcasts so far? Please stop by iTunes and rate the podcast as I understand this will make it easier to find for newcomers. If you have any other comments or questions, let me know directly, I'd love to get an email from you.

            Thanks for listening!


            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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            Saturday, June 17, 2017

            Examining the Smith Trade: Eight Points to Ponder Before Passing Final Judgment



            In a city that does love its hockey Mike's, you can add yet another.

            Although based on the initial reaction, this one has a lot of work to do to build up the same fan adoration that exists for the other three.

            It took up until nearly the 11th hour but Flames general manager Brad Treliving finally found a name to scribble into that vacant slot at goaltender before submitting his protected list to the league office today in advance of the Vegas expansion draft.

            Joining Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Micheal Ferland is goaltender Mike Smith.

            Nope, that's certainly not the sexy name the residents of Flames nation were hoping for. Far from it.

            Poaching from his old organization once again, Treliving acquired Smith in exchange for college defenceman Brandon Hickey, a conditional third round pick in 2018 (that converts to a second rounder should Calgary make the playoffs) and the rights to pending UFA Chad Johnson.

            Regarding the latter, trading away Smith left Arizona with only one goaltender (Louis Domingue) and two spots to fill prior to the expansion draft. Per expansion rules, all teams must expose at least one goaltender that meets the stipulated exposure criteria, as well as protect one goaltender. Adding Johnson quite possibly was nothing more than a paper move to help the Coyotes meet that requirement. Johnson is a pending free agent on July 1 and could still end up signing back in Calgary.

            To describe the fan reaction to the trade as lukewarm would be a gross overstatement. Based on what I observed on social media, many fans were outraged at the acquisition.

            The sky falls a lot when you're a passionately invested fan of any sports team and in this market, fans love their Flames.

            In hopes of shortening the lines at all the walk-in clinics and urgent care centres around town, here's a closer look at eight angles to the deal. Perhaps after taking a deep breath, taking a step back, and taking some of these points under consideration, the need for medical attention will subside.



            Eight Points to Ponder:


            1. Surprisingly Solid Save Percentage

            Those that dabble in advance stats will often quote even-strength save percentage as a more fair way of comparing goaltenders.

            To quote Rob Vollman from his book Stat Shot, "Power-play opportunities are so dangerous that even a short hot or cold streak can have a disproportionate impact on a goalie's year-end save percentage."

            Over the last two seasons, 52 goalies have made 40-or-more NHL starts. On that list, Smith ranks 11th, which is around the 21st percentile. That's actually pretty good. Here's a look at the top dozen along with other notables.

            Even-Strength SV% (2015-16 thru 2016-17)

            1. Carey Price, .935
            2. James Reimer, .934
            3. Matt Murray, .933
            4. Braden Holtby, .931
            5. Craig Anderson, .931
            6. Corey Crawford, .931
            7. Sergei Bobrovsky, .930
            8. Devan Dubnyk, .930
            9. Antti Raanta, .929
            10. Jonathan Quick, .927
            11. Mike Smith, .927
            12. Henrik Lundqvist, .927

               
            Other than how high on the list James Reimer is, those are some of the best at the position. Here are some other household names that fall behind Smith.


            14. Cory Schneider, .926
            15. Ben Bishop, .926
            19. Brian Elliott, .925
            22. Frederik Andersen, .924
            24. Cam Talbot, .924
            25. John Gibson, .924
            29. Marc-Andre Fleury, .923
            31. Chad Johnson, .923
            33. Pekka Rinne, .922
            34. Tuukka Rask, .922
            37. Martin Jones, .921


            The Justified Asterisk

            If you look at Smith's career statistics, the worst of his six seasons in Arizona was three years ago in 2014-15. As a refresher though, that was the year Arizona went a pitiful 24-50-8 for only 56 points. In the last 15 years, only three teams have compiled worse records:
            • 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres, 21-51-10, 42 pts
            • 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche, 22-56-4, 48 pts
            • 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres, 23-51-8, 54 pts
             
            I mention this because when you play goal for one of the worst teams in recent NHL history, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that your stats are going to suffer. Anybody quoting historical stats for Smith that covers a body of work of three or more years is going to have numbers that are weighed down by that one particularly disastrous season.

            I have no idea how much it impacts it overall but it's definitely something to keep in mind. You know that on that woeful team he would have been facing far more high-danger chances than most goalies. 
             

            2. Dragged Down by the Coyotes Defence

            Further to the above point, while I'd take Oliver Ekman-Larsson on my team any day, the list of defensively strong Coyotes defencemen is rather short. Alex Goligoski put up decent numbers offensively as No. 2 in blueline minutes but his strengths are more in the attacking zone.

            Now you're into guys like Connor Murphy, Luke Schenn and Michael Stone, who admitted when he was rescued by Calgary that he was having an off-season. Rounding out the group are raw kids like Anthony DeAngelo and Jakob Chychrun.
             
            Further compounding the overall weak Coyotes blueline was the team's inexperience and lack of depth at centre, which is typically the next most important position defensively when it comes to stifling dangerous chances from the slot. Other than Martin Hanzal's 51 games, the next two most relied-upon pivots were rookie Christian Dvorak and sophomore Jordan Martinook. Add to that a host of fourth line spare parts like Josh Jooris, Brad Richardson only played 16 games and Alex Burmistrov who only appeared in 26 games after coming over from Winnipeg.
             
            While Calgary's been no defensive juggernaut either the last couple years, the talent level overall that Smith gets to play behind now will comparably be much higher. It's safe to say the Flames top four will be much better, even without knowing the identity of who will play with TJ Brodie. Calgary's obviously much deeper up the middle also with Mikael Backlund leading the way, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and veteran Matt Stajan.

            It will be both a refreshing change for Smith and also be a better situation to succeed.


            3. Manageable Money

            With Arizona retaining 25 percent, that whittles Smith's annual average value down to $4.25 million. It's not cheap but it's less than what they paid Jonas Hiller when Calgary brought him in three years ago.

            Based on last year's goaltender cap hits, that AAV for a goalie would rank 22nd in the league, placing Smith in the lower-third income bracket of NHL starters.
                 
            For a guy whose recent play ranks him well inside the upper third of the league in terms of EV SV%, paying him a salary consistent with what the lower third are earning is a fiscally sound equation.

            Plus, with the salary cap increasing, that means Treliving should have money left over to address other shortcomings such as rounding out that aforementioned top four D.


            4. Short Term is the Best Term

            While longer term with the right player -- someone younger that could be a long-term piece -- would have been welcomed, two years of term has all along been viewed as the ideal fit because don't forget, Treliving is also standing 5 feet and 8 inches away from a dart board and is still holding three fine-looking darts in his hand.

            Tyler Parsons, David Rittich and Jon Gillies are all in the Flames pipeline and that's who Smith is bridging the gap too.

            While Calgary's history of developing goaltenders is pretty poor, when you've got three young men being groomed simultaneously, the odds that you hit the bullseye on at least one are far greater than if you only had just one, which has often been the case in the past.

            Here's a snapshot of where all three should be at in their careers when Smith's contract expires:


            Tyler Parsons

            By then will have two years of AHL/ECHL hockey under his belt, assuming he turns pro this fall as is expected. For comparison, fellow OHL graduate Matt Murray was late in his second pro season when he got called up to Pittsburgh late last season and led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. So could he be ready that quickly? I wouldn't call it likely but it's certainly possible.


            David Rittich

            Turning 25 this August, he's truly the international man of mystery here. Came over from the Czech Republic advertised as "raw" and proceeded to outplay Gillies in chalking up a .925 SV% and five shutouts in his first season. The Flames may have something here. Two years from now, he'll have three years in North America on the resume and you never know, that might include one season in the NHL. Time will tell.


            Jon Gillies

            By the summer of 2019, will have three-plus seasons of AHL experience under his belt. Considering he had season-ending surgery just a month into last season, he's only amassed just over one year so far. For college grads that ascend to the NHL, three full AHL seasons is usually the sweet spot.

            Here's a look at NCAA grads in the NHL today. I've included the round they were drafted, how many years of college they played and how many games/seasons in the minors they played. Jonathan Quick got to the NHL the fastest but as you'll see, his path was more the anomaly.
            • Jon Gillies (3rd round, 3 years) - 1.25 seasons and 46 gm in AHL
            • Jonathan Quick (3rd round, 2 years) - 1.5 seasons and 71 gm in ECHL/AHL
            • Connor Hellebuyck (5th round, 2 years) - 1.5 seasons and 88 gm in AHL
            • Cam Talbot (FA, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 118 gm in ECHL/AHL
            • Cory Schneider (1st round, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 136 gm in AHL
            • Scott Darling (6th round, 2 years) - 5.5 seasons and 158 gm in SPHL/ECHL/AHL
            • Ben Bishop (3rd round, 3 years) - 4 seasons and 165 gm in AHL
            • Chad Johnson (5th round, 4 years) - 4 seasons and 170 gm in AHL
            • Ryan Miller (5th round, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 172 gm in AHL
            • Jimmy Howard (2nd round, 3 years) - 4 seasons and 186 gm in AHL


            So if you're those three kids, you're excited today that the starter's job is still right there in waiting for them. They won't threaten for it this fall but by next season, you never know.

            If Gillies or Rittich busts onto the scene as early as next year, there are lots of options of what to do with Smith. You can move him, or keep him around as an experienced back-up.

            Smith's addition buys more time for these prospects to develop properly while not blocking their path whenever the first one is ready.


            5. Affordable Acquisition Cost

            I'm not going to tell you he came cheap. But if he backstops Calgary into a playoff spot, a second round pick (although late second round) is a price many GMs would be willing to pay to bring in a No. 1 goaltender and then get a chance to be in the post-season party. Remember what Nashville did coming out of the No. 8 spot in the West. You just never know.

            Let's not forget that the names thrown around in goalie rumours the last month included Sam Bennett. Heck, I proposed in this piece earlier in the week that it could take surrendering Gillies to bring in a potential No. 1 goaltender in waiting. Instead, both of those players remain.

            The only prospect they parted with was Brandon Hickey, who is an interesting situation as they might well have lost him for nothing next summer anyway.

            Hickey was a third round pick in 2014 whose value rose initially. But where he slotted in comparison to the likes of fellow D prospects Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington and Adam Fox was subject to debate. I've heard whispers that some within the Flames front office weren't as high on him as they once were.

            In returning to Boston University for a final season, the Flames faced the very real possibility of losing Hickey for nothing if not signed next summer before Aug. 15.

            Knowing that Calgary badly wanted to sign him this off-season but couldn't get it done, it's not a reach to suggest next year with no more leverage and unrestricted free agency just a few months away, it would not have gotten done either.


            6. What to Make of a Goalie's Age

            Smith is older, for sure. But he's a goalie, they're always older.

            Smith just turned 35 so he'll be 36 during the final season of his deal. Looking to put his age into context, here are some names you'll know.

            Older than him:
            • Ryan Miller
            • Craig Anderson
            • Henrik Lundqvist

            Younger but within a year:
            • Pekka Rinne

            For local context, Smith will be a little bit younger in his final year than Kiprusoff was in his final season with Calgary.

            I don't think anyone is claiming he's going to be lights-out for the next several years but Calgary only cares about the next two years, or even less should Gillies, Rittich or Parsons ascend to the starter's job sooner.



            7. He's an Established No. 1

            I've seen some referring to Smith as just another Elliott. Well, not really.

            One not insignificant difference is Smith has proven he can shoulder the workload of a No.1 goaltender. This is something Elliott has never proven.

            Did Elliott have an extended stretch of excellent play last year? Absolutely, he won 11 straight at one point. But he started poorly and things didn't finish well. Two good months in the middle doesn't make you a proven starter.

            Elliott has started more than 50 games in a season only once and that was seven years ago with Ottawa when he made 51 starts. That year he had an abysmal .893 save percentage so he didn't prove he could be that guy that season either.

            On the other hand, workload has never been an issue for Smith. Known as an excellent all-round athlete who keeps himself in great condition, he has started 55-plus games in four of the last six seasons.

            Let's not forget about the acquisition price of re-signing Elliott also. That would have cost Calgary a third round pick (sent to St. Louis, a condition in his trade to Calgary). In the end, the net cost for Smith could end up being the same as it would have been for Elliott.




            8. The Great Mystery: Who Rounds out the Tandem?

            It's still too early to truly assess the Flames goaltending situation as we only know half of the equation.While Smith has been the name in the spotlight today and for good reason, we still don't know the identity of who will sit in the other chair.

            Despite being included in the trade to Arizona, it could very well still be Johnson, although you wonder what other irons Treliving might have in the fire.

            Via Vegas, perhaps a Philipp Grubauer is in play. Or Calvin Pickard from the Avs. It's still too early to rule out Antti Raanta as an option too, although it sure looks from afar like the Rangers are positioning themselves to try and not lose him.

            Smith has had some lower body injury issues over the years so whoever they bring in to back up might get more of the workload than initially expected. But this won't come as news to Treliving, who knows Smith well. I'm sure that is a consideration as the search for the No. 2 continues.

            As well, Smith's injury history suggests that Gillies or Rittich might get some periodic NHL looks sooner than later too, which wouldn't be the worst thing for their overall development.





            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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