40Juuso Valimaki
Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports

2020-21 Reasonable Expectations: Juuso Valimaki

For now, the Calgary Flames look to have a pretty cut-and-dried top-four on defense. Mark Giordano, Chris Tanev, Rasmus Andersson, and Noah Hanifin are all being paid at least $4.5 million annually to patrol the blue line for the Flames.

Then, there’s Juuso Valimaki, whose $894,166 cap hit could increase by nearly 50% if he hits on all of his $425,000 worth of performance bonus targets this year. The young left-hander is coming off two years of injury-plagued development but showed extremely well in his recent loan over to the Finnish Liiga with Tampereen Ilves earlier this year. Could Valimaki surpass any of his more expensive teammates any time soon? Let’s break it down.

How he got here

Valimaki embarked on a junior career with the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans in 2015 after spending the previous three seasons in Ilves’ development system. He enjoyed a very successful age-16 season with the Americans in 2015-16, scoring 32 points in 56 games, before breaking out in his draft year.

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In 2016-17, Valimaki finished fifth among WHL defensemen, and first among draft-eligible WHL defensemen, with a 1.02 points per game pace over 60 games. Valimaki scored 19 goals and 61 points, earning a spot on Finland’s 2017 World Junior team and serious consideration as a top prospect for the 2017 Draft.

The Flames liked what they saw and picked Valimaki with the 16th overall selection in 2017. He returned to Tri-City for one last year in 2017-18 and tore up the league once more, scoring 14 goals and 45 points in 41 games. He also served as captain of the Finnish team at the 2018 World Juniors.

Valimaki managed to crack the Flames’ lineup to begin the 2018-19 season—Brett Kulak had to be traded to make room for him on the left side—and he showed some promise in his early days as an NHL player. He scored his first NHL goal on Oct. 17, 2018, with the assists coming from none other than Michael Stone and Mark Jankowski.

He was well on his way towards solidifying his spot on the Flames’ third pairing until the injury bug struck. Valimaki suffered a high ankle sprain in late November of 2018 and his injury, his 20-game comeback stint with the Stockton Heat, and the Flames’ subsequent Oscar Fantenberg acquisition kept him out of the NHL lineup until April of 2019.

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Valimaki showed well in the two playoff games he played for the Flames that spring against the Colorado Avalanche and expectations were high for him entering the 2019-20 season. Then, this happened:

It’s never good news when a player tears their ACL, and even less so when it comes right after said player has missed a huge chunk of time with a high ankle sprain. Valimaki missed the entire 2019-20 regular season recovering from his second injury and did not play in the 2020 playoffs despite being included in Calgary’s “return to play” roster. In keeping him out of the lineup during the playoffs, the Flames secured Valimaki’s exemption from the upcoming Seattle Expansion Draft.

With the beginning of the 2020-21 season delayed and Valimaki having played just 44 professional hockey games since April of 2018, the Flames decided to send their healed-up Finnish prospect back home to get some much-needed playing time. Valimaki returned to Tampereen Ilves, this time on their top-level Liiga squad, and began the 2020-21 season logging huge minutes on the club’s top pairing.

In short: Valimaki killed it over in Finland. He scored 19 points in 19 games while routinely playing well over 20 minutes a night. Dobber Prospects’ Jokke Nevalainen called Valimaki “the best player in the league” playing with “dominance at both ends of the ice.” He even wore a golden helmet for a while, earned as being Ilves’ leading scorer.

2020-21 expectations

There’s nothing definite about Valimaki’s role on the Flames at this point in time. He hasn’t played NHL  hockey in over 18 months and, as mentioned, the Flames have a pretty expensive top-four on defense.

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Still, Valimaki seems like a pretty safe bet to make the big club out of camp and log some consequential minutes in many situations. This is a player who looked NHL-ready two years ago and who dominated the Finnish league when given the chance to play again this fall.

Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson made up the Flames’ third pairing in last year’s playoffs. Both those guys are gone. Valimaki seems like the obvious choice to fill Forbort’s spot on the left side of that third pairing to begin the year. Who he’d play with is still to be determined, but Oliver Kylington, Nikita Nesterov, and Connor Mackey will all be heavily involved in the battle to make the Flames out of camp.

Here’s a fun fact: in 2018-19, Valimaki played just 24 games with the Flames but was relied on to play more total minutes on the penalty kill than Andersson saw in his full season. Both players were rookies, but the Flames viewed Valimaki as ready to contribute in that situation right away — he played 31:07 on the PK in 24 games, compared to 27:46 in 79 games for Andersson.

Andersson is a very good young defenseman who will likely be a fixture on the PK in 2020-21 (his total ice-time on the PK nearly doubled, to 51:31, in his 70 games last year). But Valimaki is two years younger and was already viewed as a valuable part of the team’s penalty kill before his ankle injury in 2018-19. Expect more shorthanded deployment for Valimaki in 2020-21.

Valimaki saw just four minutes of power play usage with the Flames in 2018-19 but that could change in 2020-21. He was Ilves’ number one defenseman and player by far, averaging 23:12 of ice time over his 19 games (Buffalo Sabres forward prospect Arttu Ruotsalainen ranked second, at 20:38 per night). He scored at a point per game pace. He’s shown offensive upside in every chapter of his career.

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Valimaki still has a lot to prove at the NHL level but there’s a lot of reason to have high hopes for him in 2020-21. Giordano isn’t getting any younger and the Flames will need someone to step up and show that they can be the guy to anchor a top pairing with Andersson for the next ten years.

As things currently stand, expect Valimaki to be the constant on the third pairing while receiving pretty consistent deployment on the penalty kill. However, if anybody in the top-four starts to stumble… Valimaki will probably be the first in line to receive a promotion. Don’t be surprised if he’s playing over 20 minutes a night in the NHL by the end of the year.