Juuso Valimaki is a very focused young man. Just 19 years of age, he’s already represented his country at several major international competitions, moved halfway across the world to pursue his dreams of stardom, been an All-Star in a highly-regarded junior league, and been drafted in the first round of the NHL Draft.
Listening to the 16th overall pick from the 2017 NHL Draft speak at Calgary Flames development camp, you get the sense that he’s just warming up.
Valimaki came over to North America as 16-year-old after being selected by the Tri-City Americans in the 2015 CHL Import Draft. He’s played three seasons in the WHL: one half-a-point per game rookie campaign and two subsequent seasons where he scored over a point per game. He’s a defenseman. His offensive production propelled him to First Team Western Conference All-Star honours in 2016-17 and 2017-18. He represented Finland at the last two World Juniors, most recently as captain.
It’s probably safe to say that his time in junior is behind him, and he’s focused on making the best first impression he can in pro hockey.
“Obviously every day is important,” said Valimaki. “Here at the camp and once I go back, obviously training will be a big part of my everyday and just gotta do everything I can to be as good as I can be in September and fighting for a spot.”
Valimaki is in a unique position. He’s filled out physically from his draft year, adding some muscle (he’s thicker now) and rounding out his game. He turns 20 during the first week of October, so he’s both eligible for the American Hockey League and in a position where his NHL contract will “slide” for a season if he doesn’t play 10 big league games.
In addition to the contractual reasons for letting him simmer in Stockton for the season, the Flames have also stocked up on veterans at the NHL and AHL levels. The left side of the NHL defensive group seems set with Mark Giordano, Noah Hanifin and Brett Kulak (and TJ Brodie can play there, too), while Oliver Kylington has been rounding out his game and seems likely to factor into any discussions about call-ups.
The only defenseman from Valimaki’s draft class to play NHL games so far is Sebastian Aho (the Swedish one), an overage pick who debuted with the New York Islanders a month before his 22nd birthday. Defensemen tend to take longer to mature.
The Flames have many NHL bodies and some contractual incentives to let him gain valuable AHL experience this season. Valimaki is aware of all this, but remains focused on making the best possible impression in training camp.
“I’ve kinda tried to learn to do everything I can and see where it takes me,” said Valimaki. “That’s kinda my mindset now. I’m just gonna do everything I can and see what happens, but obviously my goal is to play with the big club.”
If nothing else, he’s going to make main camp very competitive and management’s decisions very difficult.