8

A closer look at Juuso Valimaki

Typically when picking in the middle of the first round, an NHL team can expect to get a skilled but flawed player. Many “boom or bust” prospects slide out of the top 10 because of some perceived personality problem or because they lack at least one key ingredient in their game: size, speed, offense, hockey sense, etc.

That doesn’t seem to be the case for the Calgary Flames with Juuso Valimaki. The 18-year-old Finnish defender ticks all the boxes from a qualitative perspective: he has NHL size (6’2″, 210 pounds), and according to most scouting reports, he can skate, he has high hockey IQ, and a solid, well-rounded game.

From a quantitative perspective, Valimaki is even more impressive. In fact, not only does he appear to be one of the best bets of the 2017 draft, but his results stand out as some of the best amongst first round defensemen of the past five years.

We’ll start by comparing Valimaki to his peers. This year he was by far the most dominant WHL defender in terms of offense. From Prospect-stats.com:

Valimaki led all WHL defensemen 18 years old or under in goals, points, primary points, and points per game. In fact, even if we expand the field to include all WHL blueliners, Valimaki still places top five in most of these categories.

Offense seems like a secondary factor when it comes to evaluating defensemen, but it’s one of the most predictive variables when we’re talking about projecting a prospect to make the NHL. Years ago, Rhys Jessop (formerly of Canucks Army and developer of the original SEAL system we have used for the top 100 prospect profiles this year) found that offense is essential in evaluating prospective blueliners:

Which is why, based on his output this season, Valimaki has a better than 64% chance of making the NHL when we look at his historical comparisons:

To add further context, I went through and compared Valimaki to some of the noteworthy defensemen who were taken in the first round going back to 2012. Here’s the list, sorted by NHLe (NHL equivalence):

Player Draft position league PTS GP PPG NHLe
Juuso Valimaki 16 WHL 61 60 1.02 24.1
Ivan Provorov 7 WHL 61 60 1.02 24.1
Cody Ceci 15 OHL 60 64 0.94 23.5
Aaron Ekblad 1 OHL 53 58 0.91 22.9
Seth Jones 4 WHL 56 61 0.92 21.8
Julius Honka 14 WHL 56 62 0.90 21.5
Mikhail Sergachev 9 OHL 57 67 0.85 21.3
Matt Dumba 7 WHL 57 69 0.83 19.6
Derrick Pouliot 8 WHL 59 72 0.82 19.5
Noah Hanifin 5 H-EAST 23 37 0.62 19.2
Callan Foote 14 WHL 57 71 0.80 19.1
Zach Werenski 8 Big-10 25 35 0.71 18.5
Olli Juolevi 5 OHL 42 57 0.74 18.5
Ryan Pulock 15 WHL 45 61 0.74 17.5
Haydn Fleury 7 WHL 46 70 0.66 15.6
Jakub Zboril 13 QMJHL 33 44 0.75 15.1
Darnell Nurse 7 OHL 41 68 0.60 15.1
Olli Maatta 22 OHL 32 58 0.55 13.8

As you can see, Valimaki isn’t just sharing some rarified air, he’s right at the top of the list. Not even Aaron Ekblad posted a PPG or NHLe as high as Valimaki did this season.

I have also highlighted guys on the list who are currently playing in the NHL (just under 50%). Already you can see that many of the guys here are every day (if not impact) NHL players, even though we’re talking about some very recent drafts.

Ivan Provorov is an interesting comparable given how close his results match Valimaki’s: same league, same amount of points, same number of games, same NHLe. Provorov was picked seventh overall in 2015 and played just one more season in the WHL before making the leap directly to the show this year.

What’s interesting is Provorov had an excellent rookie season despite his young age. It’s the kind of debut that would normally garner Calder consideration if the league had not been jammed with so many high-end quality kids.

Here’s how his underlying numbers look so far:

Excellent shot suppression and offense while shot generation needs improvement. Still, this is a way above average look for a rookie.

As for counting stats, Provorov scored six goals and 30 points in 82 games. What’s most impressive, though, is he lead the Flyers’ blueline in terms of even strength and overall ice time per game. That’s an amazing feat for a kid who turned 20 during the season.

Conclusion

Unlike most guys you typically get outside of the top 10, there are almost no statistical or intangible red flags when it comes Valimaki. His scouting reports are glowing and his numbers are some of the best I can find.

The worst things you can say about the player is he is old for this draft class (almost 19) and his offensive game isn’t “flashy”. The latter knock seems to be what suppressed his draft rankings somewhat, with scouts wondering if his offense would translate at the next level. That said, even without flash to his game style, Valimaki put up some of the best totals we’ve seen from a defenseman in years.

Obviously, the caveat here is we are blind to certain key factors like usage, linemates, quality of competition, etc. Also, glancing at the list of players I shared above, we can see that scoring doesn’t perfectly project a player’s quality in the NHL (Cody Ceci scored more than Ekblad, but he’s a fairly middling NHLer for example).

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be optimistic about Valimaki’s future in the Flames organization. Looking at his package of skills and results, one wonders how Valimaki wasn’t tabbed as a top 10, if not top five, pick in this year’s draft.

As a result, he instantly jumps to the top of Calgary’s prospect ranks and may be a guy who challenges for a spot on the big club sooner rather than later.

  • Puckhead

    Thank you for compiling this information and giving us some comparables.

    What a phenomenal pick. When you look at the stats there is no reason for him to drop to #16. I can’t believe our luck!

  • TurkeyLips

    Another great first pick in a phenomenal line of first round choices we’ve had the fortune of drafting last couple years. His comprables to the highly regarded D picks of past were encouraging to read about here. Valimaki truly seems to have every desireable skillset a blueliner needs, his 212 lbs dry weight for a 6’2 frame is highly promising – that’s 30 lbs more than Juolevi clocked in last year. Vision, puck IQ, patience, willingness adapt to team needs…couldn’t ask for anything more than a good motor to pair that with. Exactly what Valimaki offers. His skating agility, not speed, needs work supposedly, which is nothing unexpected for someone developing and can be worked on (look at Backlund, that start/stop pulled this year still makes be blush).

    “Sexy” outliers appear every round. By definition they’re more risky, eschewing versatility for extreme prescence in one or two facets on the game. Offensive D-men have created a lot of fuss around the league lately, but projecting such players is hard – and now that its seen as a way for prosepctive draftee defensemen to stand out of the crowd. But is this hindering their long-term development, and putting own interests ahead of the farm team in some cases? Seems many a blueline stud has dropped recent drafts for exactly this reason. Expect future draft classes to be cluttered with “offensive” defensemen who may be playing beyond their position to improve perceived draft eligibility.

    While everyone would like the next Burns or Karlsson, its nice to see we got a sensible option with high potential to make the show. Sensible, big, fast and well-rounded are all you could ever ask for from a young Dman. We just traded a motherload to attain (another) one, and rightfully so. With that said, no, his name doesn’t rhyme with a Japanese car brand, but Valimaki may prove to be one of our most valuable picks since Monahan.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I am pretty stoked about this pick. If we can build a strong base of young NHL ready defense-men bursting onto the scene (As teams like Nashville and Anaheim have done in recent years), the top 4 talent throughout the line up is what builds championship caliber teams and if nothing else, they become extremely valuable trade chips.

    Now let’s go get a top six forward! Galchenyuk? And we will be off to the races next year.

  • Styxx

    As the saying goes…defence wins championships!

    Having one of the 4-5 best top 4 D groups in the league, plus having 4-5 bona fide D prospects is simply a lifetime away from where the Flames were just 3-4 years ago. At that time we were simply aiming (mostly hoping without solid foundation) to compete for the playoffs. Add a solid goalie with top-notch puckhandling skills plus 2-3 solid G prospects too and you have a lasting foundation upon which this team can sustain a multi-year push for the Cup. These changes alone, plus even an average start, should reduce our Goals Against by at least 20 and push CF up 4-5% which is massive.

    Adding solid contributions by Jankowski, a comeback year by Bennett and Lazar, and early consistent performances by Gaudreau, Monahan and Ferland, will see 2017-18 become the start of a long run of playoff appearances and serious cup runs!! Who would have thought that 4 years ago!!

    GFG!!