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.
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.
|#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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