Given the young defensive quality the Flames have accumulated, it might be a bit shocking to think that their youngest defenceman might be their best.
But it’s certainly believable when you see Juuso Valimaki play. He’s everything you could want in a defensive prospect: strong skater, incredibly smart, NHL-sized (6’2, 205 lbs.), offensively talented, and responsible in his own end. His skill and poise are two major reasons the Flames think he can make the NHL next season.
After being eliminated from the WHL playoffs last night in a 6-5 OT thriller against the Everett Silvertips, he has few other places to go. The kid has been one of the WHL’s most dominant defencemen in his three seasons in the league, so there’s not much left to prove. Given that he’s old enough to join the professional ranks next season, it’s likely that we’ve seen the last of junior Juuso.
So just how good is Valimaki?
Scouts have been closely watching Valimaki since his days in Finland. His performance in Finland’s U18 Jr B. league saw him finish fifth in defensive scoring and win the Rookie of the Year award despite being 15 years old. The next season, he finished fourth in Finland’s U20 Jr A. league for defensive scoring, younger than those who finished ahead of him. He earned the attention of the Tri-City scouts, who snapped him up with the 14th overall pick in the CHL import draft.
Valimaki’s first season with Tri-City was quietly productive. In what appears to be an emerging theme, Valimaki finished first among rookie defencemen in points per game. He also captained Finland to a U18 World Juniors gold that season, improving on a silver from the year before. His second season in the WHL was more or less like the first: led all first-time defensive draft eligibles in scoring, took a major role on Finland’s international team. Valimaki slipped to the Flames in the first round of the 2017 draft, going 16th overall in a pretty hectic draft.
Well, more of the same. Valimaki was expected to have another season of strong development in the WHL and lead the Finns to WJC success.
He was mostly successful in these endeavors, but there were bumps along the way. Valimaki picked up a serious injury sometime around (either before or during) the World Juniors, but either played through it or reinjured it during the tournament (sources and timeline are unclear). Regardless, Valimaki picked up four points in five games, although the Finns were eliminated earlier than most expected.
After the WJC, he missed a few weeks of hockey due to the injury, and certainly came back a little shaky. Despite the rust, Valimaki finished the season hot, picking up 12 points in his last eight regular season games. Despite another minor injury in the playoffs, he finished the postseason with 17 points in 12 games, including a career high four assists last night in game six against Everett. He saved his best for last.
— The WHL (@TheWHL) April 29, 2018
|GP||G||A||P||Primary points||5v5 Points||5v5 Primary points||NHLe|
Other than starting the year off with three points in one game, Valimaki was probably one of the most consistent Flames players. Besides a few weeks in the aftermath of sustaining that injury during (or, again, maybe before) the World Juniors where Valimaki missed nearly a month and a half of WHL action, he rarely wavered from the 23-25 NHLe range. I think he was rushed back from injury, because those few weeks are just so out of sync with the rest of his production throughout the year.
Valimaki also isn’t like a lot of high scoring defenceman in that he doesn’t rely on powerplay production to boost his numbers. At 5v5, he led WHL defencemen in points per game and primary points per game, which is pretty impressive. It’s wild to think what he could’ve done had he been healthy all year round.
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) November 6, 2017
The weird thing about Valimaki is that his season isn’t actually all that special given the range of 18-year-old seasons in the WHL. Only 38% of players with similar AS scoring numbers went onto play 200 games in the NHL, scoring at a 0.35 PPG rate. Of similar 5v5 producers, only 16.67% went onto 200 games, scoring around 0.44 PPG. Players who matched Valimaki’s production in both categories only went on to the league 20% of the time, scoring at 0.44 PPG.
Those numbers are down hard from his draft season comparables, which saw comparable players go on to make the NHL 85.71% (AS) and 62.5% (5v5) but at slightly similar scoring rates (0.35 for both AS and 5v5). Overlap between the two categories saw 80% of players go on to make the NHL. Safe to say that it is a dramatic decrease.
I think the drop likely has to do with the increased noise (i.e. defencemen who were buried at age 17 getting opportunities at age 18), proximity (seven players – Derrick Pouliot, Joe Morrow, Josh Morrissey, Ryan Pulock, Ivan Provorov, Shea Theodore, and Travis Sanheim – are all recent draftees and five are likely to hit 200 games next season. Including those five would boost Valimaki’s numbers above 50%) and Valimaki’s injury. What’s really interesting are the players Valimaki matches with over different seasons.
Finding extremely similar players for Valimaki is tough, but there are a few. Of the four players who matched Valimaki in three categories, all four of them played over 300 NHL games and scored an average of 0.4 PPG. His even stronger comparables, players who matched him in four categories, are even more impressive. The two strongest comparables are Ivan Provorov and Dan Hamhuis. One was one of the NHL’s best defencemen at his peak and the other is already a full-timer despite having turned 21 in January. That’s nothing but good news.
Probability isn’t destiny, but you have to love what you see from Valimaki. He is not only a very safe bet to make the league, but also to thrive in it early.
Now for the million dollar question: can Valimaki be in the NHL next year?
From the outset, it’s certainly possible. Valimaki seems poised enough to jump into the NHL without being intimidated by the big show. From what you see in junior, there’s no real part of his game that needs major tweaking. If he’s like his cohorts, it’s more believable. Provorov jumped immediately to the NHL and is now an important piece of the Philly blueline. Other ones like Hamhuis didn’t go straight to the NHL, but didn’t spend that much time in the AHL. Valimaki could be in Calgary sooner rather than later.
But there’s going to be some fierce competition. If there is an LHD spot available at training camp, he will have to fight off Oliver Kylington for it, and that’s a tough task. I don’t doubt that Valimaki is talented enough to win that spot, but it might just be that Kylington is a bit more pro seasoned. Starting in the AHL isn’t a bad thing. His contract can slide for one more year, which is something that could weigh heavily in the decision process.
If that is not convincing, consider this: It would be very funny if the Flames graduated Valimaki to the pros before the Canucks could get Olli Juolevi an NHL game. That would be very funny and it’s the outcome I’m cheering for.
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