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FlamesNation Top 20 Prospects: #3 Juuso Valimaki

Picking in the middle of the draft was a bit of a novelty for the Flames this past season. It was their first mid-to-late first round pick since 2012 – recalling that they traded 15th overall for Dougie Hamilton in 2015 – and as such, just who they were going to select wasn’t readily apparent.

It’s not as though the 16th overall pick is likely to step into the NHL the very next season. So, who would they pick? Evidently, they chose to add what they probably saw as the best player available, who just so happened to be yet another young defenceman with a high ceiling.

But man, there’s a lot to like about Juuso Valimaki, who debuts at number three in our top 20 prospects countdown.

A brief history

Hailing from Nokia, Finland – yes, that Nokia – Valimaki got his start playing for Ilves in nearby Tampere. As a 15-year-old, he was captaining the Finnish U16 team, and wore an “A” for Ilves’ U18 team during a season that saw him score 33 points in 44 games, the second highest scoring defender on the team. Valimaki graduated to Ilves’ U20 team in 2014-15, scoring 20 points over 44 games as the team’s third highest scoring defender, three or four years younger than those above him, and continued to represent Finland internationally.

For his draft-1 season, Valimaki, at 17, made the transition to North America. The WHL’s Tri-City Americans selected him 14th overall in the 2015 CHL Import Draft, and as a rookie he scored seven goals and 32 points over 56 games. Valimaki was eighth in team scoring that season and second in defensive scoring, 24 points back of one Parker Wotherspoon in 15 fewer games played. He also captained the Finnish U18 team to a gold at the World U18 Junior Championship, registering two assists over six games.

Acclimated to North America, Valimaki went on a tear for his draft season. He scored 19 goals and 61 points over 60 games for Tri-City, finishing fourth in team scoring and second in defensive scoring – this time five points back of Wotherspoon in nine fewer games played. Valimaki was fourth out of all defencemen in the WHL with 42 primary points, fourth in 5v5 points with 29, and fourth in 5v5 primary points with 21, with all players ahead of him either drafted in 2014 or 2015, or undrafted and set to age out of junior.

Valimaki rounded out his draft year with one assist as the Americans suffered a four-game first-round sweep in the WHL playoffs to the eventual champion Seattle Thunderbirds. He also made his U20 World Juniors debut, scoring two goals in six games as Finland finished a disastrous ninth place. His two goals were tied for the lead in team goals.

One of the oldest players available in the 2017 NHL Draft – Valimaki turns 19 on Oct. 6 – the Flames selected the 6’2, 212 lb. left-shooting defenceman 16th overall and signed him to an entry-level contract just under a month later. After a good showing at the World Junior Summer Showcase, he was named Team Finland’s captain for the 2018 World Junior Championships.

Quotable

Andy Eide of ESPN 710 Seattle saw a lot of Tri-City last season and shared his thoughts on the Flames’ 2017 first rounder.

The big Finnish defenseman nearly doubled his point totals during his second season in the WHL with the Tri-City Americans. He potted 19 goals and could be in store for a monster season with a high-powered Tri-City club this coming year. Valimaki is solid in his own end and shows a good instinct for when to jump into the rush, which usually led to good things for the Americans.

Larry Fisher of the Kelowna Daily Courier shared his notes from his live viewings of Valimaki, noting that even in limited viewings his size and skill level jump out.

He’s an eye-catching talent, yet he can be unnoticeable for all the right reasons and play a simple game at the same time. Tri-City had plenty of draft eligibles to watch this past season and Valimaki was always easy to spot and hard to miss even if you weren’t looking for him on any given night. He’s big and mobile, a smooth and sound defender with a high hockey IQ or hockey sense. He obviously has good offensive instincts — as evidenced by his point total — but I’m not sure if he’ll put up huge numbers as a pro.

In saying that, some scouts who have seen Valimaki on his best nights have suggested he could develop into a poor man’s Victor Hedman, at least in terms of playing style. I don’t know if he has that kind of upside or what his ceiling will be, but I definitely think Valimaki will be a solid pro and a good fit with the Flames’ future blue line — a Finn to play alongside two Swedes in Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington, plus a slick American puck-mover and power-play quarterback in Adam Fox. Most teams would kill for a top four like that, providing they all pan out.

What comes next?

Unless Valimaki really surprises at training camp, in all likelihood he’ll be playing his 2017-18 season for the Tri-City Americans. He’ll probably get a break in the middle of the season to play at the 2018 World Juniors in Buffalo for Finland, a country no doubt looking to improve on its standing. Valimaki scored over a point per game as a draft-eligible defender, and we can probably expect his scoring to go up this season as he should step into a bigger role.

As a 1998-born player, Valimaki will have the option to make the leap to the AHL in 2018-19. If he plays fewer than nine games in the NHL that season, then his entry-level contract wouldn’t kick in until the 2019-20 season: two years after he was drafted, and within the target range of when he expects to be playing in the NHL.

With Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie the only presently established left-handed defenders the Flames have, the door could be open for Valimaki to make his NHL debut sooner rather than later. Considering their stable of defencemen – both professional and prospective – there’s no need for the team to rush him, and he’ll likely only make the big league when he’s good and ready.

Considering his size, his offensive talent, and his defensive play, Valimaki seems to be a no-brainer to make the NHL one day – and when he does, he should be a fine addition to what’s looking to be a formidable group on the blueline.

Previously

#20 – Ryan Lomberg #19 – Adam Ollas Mattsson
#18 – Daniel Pribyl #17 – Eetu Tuulola
#16 – Adam Ruzicka #15 – Emile Poirier
#14 – David Rittich #13 – Hunter Shinkaruk
#12 – Matthew Phillips #11 – Jon Gillies
#10 – Morgan Klimchuk #9 – Andrew Mangiapane
#8 – Dillon Dube #7 – Spencer Foo
#6 – Mark Jankowski #5 – Oliver Kylington
#4 – Adam Fox

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  • Off the wall

    It would be interesting to watch this young man during the Young Stars tournament.
    With Valamaki on the left side and Andersson on the right.

    His ability to be a leader, speaks so much about this kid at such a young age.

    Fun times ahead to be sure..

  • OYYC

    It sounds like the Flames were targeting Valimaki, the Finnish scout wished him good luck just before the draft. From what I’ve seen and read about Valimaki, his poise seems to be one of his best attributes.

    He simply makes very good decisions in all phases of the game, and being named captain at a couple of levels already can’t be a bad thing. Another very solid pick by management and adds to an unbelievable pipeline on the back end.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    Unreal prospect depth on defense with Rasmus still to come! It’s incredible that our top 5 prospects are building the team “from the net out”. Couple this with our incredible center depth on the big team and you know Tre is building this team the right way. It seems many of our forward prospects are of the “B” variety – I’m ok with this as the top 6 is mostly set on the big club – we need fillers for the bottom half of the forward group over the next few years. The nice thing is there is a lot of them! We have an abundance of B forward prospects with enough of them to surely have a few hit and fill those spots. The Flames org is on the right track – I’ve never been as optimistic about the present/future. Rob Vollman on the Fan suggested the Flames are building something that can last – not just a short flash in the pan window. I like hearing that!

    • Trevy

      I also agree, but would also include our goaltending prospects in all this. Tre and his scouts have done a tremendous job scouting and recruiting players. I think the only area I personally believe that needs revamping and it will, is the bottom six. We have Bennett and Lazar in there, but until the contracts of Stajan and Brouwer are gone, I believe we could use a couple of guys with speed and a little more “aggressiveness” to wear teams down more

        • everton fc

          It’d take one of our defencive prospects to pry Anthanasiou out of Detroit. Perhaps Kulak, and a combo-platter of prospects? Or one of our goalie prospects?? They won’t let him go for cheap. And he’s not worth a whole lot, as is. He’s a very attractive possibility, though. Has he ever played wing??

          • Bean-counting cowboy

            “won’t let him go for cheap”… they might not end up with a choice given their cap situation.

            As far as him as a centre… I thought he played some RW in Detroit?

            I’d still go for it. He fits today’s speed game and has some un-tapped upside.

    • FlamesFanOtherCity

      The forward crop is the most perplexing. Klimchuk, Poirier, Mangipane, Dube are nice prospects that might fill out the top 9 in the future, but not having a RW in that group is concerning. I know Poirier plays RW, but having all you hope on one player is dangerous.

      Saying that, we have more A prospects for defense than we have spots available in the near future. Valimaki-Andersson, Kylington-Fox could be top 4 in the next 4 years. Allows you to phase out Gio while his game is still high level and replace Hamonic if he doesn’t fit or you let him walk.

  • Just.Visiting

    I’d originally been hoping for a big forward with skill and grit going into the draft. I was also expecting someone who is a bit of a work in progress at this stage of the draft, particularly in what was being referred to as a weak draft year.

    In watching the discussion on the pick and seeing the associated video, I found myself saying that this was a great pick at this stage of the draft, even though we had three other elite D prospects.

    The comments I’ve read since have made the pick seem even better. He projects out as a very solid all round player with size, smarts and leadership and no glaring hole. In other words, he seems like a sure thing, where the ETA and the ceiling are the only questions.

    I would not have even considered this last year with Wideman and Engelland in the mix (and I’m not necessarily encouraging it), but I think that he might wow enough at the prospects tournament and the main camp to force himself into the mix for a sheltered minutes sixth D role paired with Stone to start the season.

    If the Flames went down this path, there would still be an off ramp at the nine game mark, where I wouldn’t expect that Wotherspoon or Bart would have been claimed on waivers.

    On a totally unrelated topic, it would be great if the comment box were bigger, so that it would be much easier to proof the comments. Similarly, the loss of edit functionality (even if time limited) in the switchover was very unfortunate.

    If he earned the spot and Kulak were the 7th, that defence might be the deepest in the league.

    • supra steve

      Agree, we totally need to bolster winger depth, but since competent D have become so valuable, I think the old “draft the best player available” needs to be modified to “draft the most valuable player available”. If the club ends up overloaded with NHL D men, moving some of that depth is an excellent way to obtain the winger depth that the club will need.

    • Andy61038

      If say they are both close enough either could be ahead. Valamaki has proven himself in the toughest junior league. While fox had completed donated the ncac it’s still considered one of the weakest college leagues. See how he does in juniors this year with a bigger role with the us.

      • oilcanboyd

        Andy, “As an 18 year freshman he made a tremendous impact. He made the goal medal-winning World Junior Championship team, where he scored four points in seven games. During the World Junior summer showcase this summer, Fox was one of the more dominant players for the U.S. team, scoring seven points in the last two exhibition games alone. After the tournament, U.S. Olympic coach Tony Granato noted that Fox may even be on the Olympic team’s roster.

      • Off the wall

        I still don’t understand the bias myself. Roughly 30% of NHL players have taken the college/ university route.

        I wonder if the bias allowed us to pluck Johnny Hockey in the 4th round?!

        • Old Goat

          Quite a shocking but correct stat. Maybe the shift is on for parents to protect their kids future if hockey doesn’t work out. The bias should go by the wayside fairly quickly now

        • McRib

          There are more Canadian Amatuers Scouts on most NHL Teams roster (although weirdly enough Nashville doesn’t have a single Canadian Scout), so they have a larger say come draft time than the American scouts.

          • McRib

            “Roughly 30% of NHL players have taken the college/ university route.”

            In the CHLs defense 55% of NHLers have taken that route. These are the two most substantial developmental routes to the NHL.

          • McRib

            Fox should never have fallen though, as he had just set the all time points record by a defenseman at the USNTDP, when someone does that they should be a first rounder, but his height got in the way for the old guard NHL Scouts. They also convinced themselves that he wasn’t a great “defender”, which is what they always do for top offensive defenders (Subban, Shattenkirk, etc)

        • oilcanboyd

          What happened to WWYD? ON has it on possible PTOs for the oilers: Hudler, Wideman, Iginla, Chiasson… They say the Flames are a bad hockey team and they are drooling at the prospect of signing former Flames!

        • Thunder1

          This is stupid. A decent hockey conversation going back to school between consenting, knowledgeable fans about a great topic like the WHL/NCAA bias completely derailed by an antiquated, clunky and ineffective user comment section. I, Thunder1, shall never comment in these environs again until the problem is rectified. Moni raises the Cup one day!

  • Baalzamon

    The way I see the defense prospects is as follows:

    Best tools/highest ceiling: Oliver Kylington
    Highest floor: Rasmus Andersson
    Best progression/results: Adam Fox
    Best prospect: Juuso Valimaki

    Valimaki gets “best prospect” basically because he ranks second in every other category.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    I like to think I have some knowledge of draft prospects but the truth is I knew nothing about Valimaki. Most of the publications I read had him in the top 20 but I was sure that we were going to draft Lilljegren as BPA but I like everything I am hearing and seeing. There is no substitute for leadership.

    • supra steve

      Unless your club is picking in the top 2 to 4, a fan trying to narrow down their team’s selection is just a waste of time. Last year is a good example, I never would have guessed that Tkachuk would have been available at #6. And those that hated the Jankowski first round pick because he was listed as an early 2nd rounder in the Hockey News, just get over it. We have very little info to consider, while the Flames have mountains of info to sift through. They won’t hit a home run with every selection, but they have been doing an awesome job (overall) for the last several years. They have given up some picks recently, but had previously stockpiled several extra picks from trade deadline deals (GlenX, Hudler, Russell, etc), and they have gained a lot of D depth in giving up those picks. Future looks bright.