Dating back to 2013, the Calgary Flames have turned three first round picks into NHL regulars – Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk. Despite some recent injury speed bumps, Juuso Valimaki is poised to become the fourth as he’s currently dominating Finnish pro hockey.
Valimaki repeats as the top prospect of the Calgary Flames per our annual staff rankings for the third consecutive year.
How did we get here?
A product of Nokia, Finland, Valimaki grew up playing in the Ilves organization in neighbouring Tampere, Finland. He became a prospect of some renown in Finland, usually playing a year or two above his actual age.
After playing in Finland’s main under-20 junior league as a 16-year-old, Valimaki bet on himself and opted for a change and a challenge. He was selected by the Tri-City Americans of the WHL in the CHL’s Import Draft and joined the Dub as a 17-year-old. He had 32 points as a rookie, finishing fourth in the league among rookie blueliners.
The following season, Valimaki’s draft eligible season of 2016-17, he found a new gear. He had 61 points over 60 games, finishing seventh among all WHL defensemen and emerging as one of Tri-City’s top players in all situations. He was named a second team conference all-star and was selected in the first round, 16th overall, by the Flames at the 2017 NHL Draft.
His post-draft season was hampered by an upper body injury suffered during the World Juniors. He played only 43 games, but amassed 45 points and really impressed scouts with his all-around play when he was healthy. He was, once again, named a second team conference all-star.
Turning pro as a 20-year-old, Valimaki turned heads at Flames training camp and made the team to open the 2018-19 season. He played 22 times in the club’s first 23 games, finding a comfort zone on the third pairing and amassing a modest one goal and one assist. He suffered a high ankle sprain and was sidelined for two months, returning in late January with a stint for the Stockton Heat. He had 14 points in 20 AHL games, emerging as an excellent AHL defender. He was brought back to the NHL for the final two regular season games and suited up a couple times in their first round loss against Colorado.
Whoa, what a snipe! Juuso Valimaki has his first goal of the season and you’ll want to see it.
On loan from the Flames to his hometown team Ilves in the top Finnish league, the 22-year-old is off to a superb start with 5 pts (1 g, 4 a) in 5 gm while averaging 22:31 in ice time. pic.twitter.com/T3ogNBTYNQ
— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) October 17, 2020
Valimaki tore his ACL in August 2019, though, and was sidelined for the entire 2019-20 regular season. He was on the Flames’ Phase 3 and 4 rosters for Return to Play, but never dressed. He played his first meaningful hockey since April 2019 when he joined Ilves on a loan in October 2020. He’s emerged as one of the top players in SM-Liiga.
Stats, numbers, and everything therein
After Sunday’s games, Valimaki has two goals and 17 points through 17 SM-Liiga games. That’s good for eighth in league scoring, and tops among SM-Liiga defensemen. Of the seven players ahead of him in scoring, only two are younger: Florida first rounder Anton Lundell and Columbus draft pick Emil Bemstrom.
— Petteri Rainola (@Del_Pieru) November 20, 2020
Success in SM-Liiga is not a guarantee of NHL success, but it’s a nice sign that he’s bounced back from what was a pretty gnarly injury. An ACL repair is a tough thing to come back from, and Valimaki’s playing extremely well in a really good league. It bodes well for his future.
Those in the know
Stockton Heat head coach Cail MacLean had Valimaki with Stockton for awhile and has a pretty high opinion of the Finn as a player and person:
I think that they really have, not just a strong, really competitive hockey player, but I think they have someone who has some great leadership abilities in terms of the drive and the dedication to be his best. I think Juuso’s really driven. I think he’s a very good hockey player with a lot of great assets in terms of he’s a workhorse out there. You can count on him in a variety of situations. But what really impressed me was just the sort of mentality and the willingness to grow and learn from a young guy, which to me says when you’ve got someone that talented and they’re able to be humble, hard-working, good teammates, in years to come that’s going to be a really big boost for your organization. Some of those intangibles that in addition to his play are going to make Juuso a real gem for the organization.
On the horizon
Prior to his knee injury, the Flames fully intended to give Valimaki a crack as an everyday NHL defenseman. Nothing that’s happened in the interim has changed that plan, and his success in SM-Liiga has likely cemented it.
When the NHL returns, Valimaki will be wearing a Flaming C and will very likely graduate from this ranking. Since he’s still eligible for the Calder Trophy, you never know what else he could accomplish with the opportunities the Flames will try to give him. Based on what we’ve seen in Finland, Valimaki may be poised for big things.
FlamesNation Top 20 Prospects 2020