Brad Treliving’s Flames don’t often pick in the first round, but when they do, they get some gems.
Just a year removed from his draft, Juuso Valimaki made his NHL debut, a remarkable rise from 16th overall to NHL regular. He’s a bright star in the organization, and could be the future cornerstone of the defence.
2018-19 season summary
Valimaki played himself into the Flames’ game one lineup, beating out more pro-seasoned players to claim a spot on the third pairing on opening night.
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He mostly played with Rasmus Andersson on the third pairing, which received heavy sheltering from the coaching staff. With a pretty solid top four and Mark Giordano playing Norris level hockey, Bill Peters was able to let the other pairings take the tough matchups and let Valimaki-Andersson have the rest. They were most frequently paired with the Bennett-Jankowski/Ryan-Neal line and the Gaudreau-Monahan-Lindholm line in the offensive zone. Valimaki also saw some time on special teams, playing for a bit on the second penalty killing unit.
But some of his numbers aren’t great, understandably. He was a rookie paired with another rookie on the third pairing: there’s going to be some growing pains there. But considering his usage, you kinda wished for a bit more from Valimaki. He was a WHL standout for his effective offensive zone play, but that aspect of his game hasn’t quite come over yet. His shot generation rates ranked near the bottom of Flames’ defenders. Given the offensive opportunities afforded to him, it’s a bit disappointing, but he’s still someone figuring out the game at the NHL level.
Unfortunately, Valimaki didn’t get much of an opportunity to really prove himself. An injury in late November caused him to miss significant time, and he was sent down to the Stockton Heat to get back up to speed. His minors stint was a resounding success, picking up 14 points in 20 games. For comparison, he finished fourth in Stockton defensive scoring despite having played at least 34 less games than the players ahead of him.
He returned to the big team in March, playing out the stretch after the Flames had clinched the division. He also suited up for two playoff games after the Flames found themselves in a series hole. He picked up an assist in the postseason.
Compared to last season
Valimaki’s final year in junior proved that he was way too good for the WHL. He picked up 45 points in 43 games, and capped it off with a brilliant playoff performance, scoring 17 in 12. He was the league’s defensive leader in 5v5 points and primary points per game, which is astounding given that he was likely playing injured for a month.
Obviously, things weren’t going to translate over that quickly for him. Only the best of the best step into the NHL seamlessly from junior. Valimaki’s first NHL season had flashes of what he was in junior, but not enough of them. This season was one of the first real tests of his career, being the first time he’s played against players that weren’t in his own age group.
Even if this season was rough at times, he still is on track to be a very good NHLer and bring the qualities that made him a special WHLer over to the NHL. Every other stop in his career, including his brief AHL stint, has been evidence that he’s too good to not be in the NHL.
What about next season?
It’s nowhere but up for Valimaki. The kid has shown impressive growth year over year and will likely take another major step forward next season.
He has a bit of a mountain to climb on the Flames depth chart. He’s behind Mark Giordano and Noah Hanifin at LHD, and will likely face a battle from Oliver Kylington for one of those bottom pairing spots. I’d put Valimaki as the early favourite, but Kylington probably doesn’t want to go back to the AHL again.
Even if he can’t escape the third pairing, it’s likely that Bill Peters trusts him more with defensive assignments and on special teams. I think that they might also try to get his offence going by giving him powerplay time, especially if there’s uncertainty about TJ Brodie’s future with the club.
Worst case scenario, and it shouldn’t ever get to this, but he is still waiver-exempt and could spend some time in Stockton to work on his game. The Flames have flexibility with Valimaki, though I don’t expect them to use it.