Calgary Flames set to cross paths with Juuso Valimaki at Mullett Arena, an NHL venue unlike all the rest
Photo credit:Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
By Mike Gould6 months ago
When the Calgary Flames face the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday night, they’ll take the ice in a venue with 5,000 seats.
Mullett Arena, located in the heart of Tempe, AZ, is the NHL’s newest facility. It’s also its smallest, by far.
Think of it this way. The Scotiabank Saddledome can fit nearly 20,000 people. The Stampede Corral, torn down in 2020 to make way for the BMO Centre expansion, held a maximum of 7,475.
But while the Corral hadn’t felt all that new for around five decades by the time of its demise, the Mullett has the opposite character. It’s a stunning venue with a steep bowl and great sightlines for hockey. In many ways, it feels like the NHL arenas in Los Angeles or Las Vegas — just compressed.
Of course, the Coyotes have their sights set on something greater. Their proposed arena and entertainment district proposal passed with the unanimous support of Tempe City Council last fall, leaving an upcoming referendum in May as the final major civic roadblock to overcome before construction can begin. The team hasn’t indicated what will happen if the vote fails.
Until then, the ‘Yotes are making Mullett Arena their cozy, albeit temporary, home. They’ve put on a good show for their fans, too, posting a 13–8–2 record through 23 sellout games in their new digs. For a Flames team struggling to win by any means of late, the Coyotes’ unique home-ice advantage presents yet another obstacle.
Every MLB ballpark has its own quirk. The fan experience at soccer stadiums can vary wildly from city to city and continent to continent. But, for the most part, you won’t find a whole lot to separate one NHL arena from another — save, perhaps, for a particular Pringle-shaped roof here and there.
Mullett Arena offers a completely different fan experience. Whether you agree with the NHL backing a team in Arizona while leaving other markets underserved, there’s no denying the spectacle of watching the world’s fastest game in such an intimate environment. It’s worth checking out (and, if you’re so inclined, the Flames will return to Tempe on Mar. 14).
The rebuilding Coyotes currently boast the NHL’s longest point streak, having gone nine games without a regulation loss. While their top line of Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, and Barrett Hayton has driven the bus for a lot of that run, so, too, has defenceman Juuso Valimaki — remember him?
Claimed off waivers from the Flames by the Coyotes at the start of the 2022–23 season, Valimaki has enjoyed a terrific debut season in the desert and looks to be establishing himself as a potential long-term piece for his new team. Through Arizona’s current nine-game run, Valimaki has racked up seven points while logging a team-high 22:44 per night.
Even after veteran rearguard Shayne Gostisbehere returned to the lineup against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 19, Valimaki still played 22:01 in a 3–2 overtime win. He’s been used heavily on the PK, in overtime, and, more recently, on Arizona’s top power-play unit.
Valimaki suited up for 82 games over parts of three seasons with the Flames after being drafted in the first round by the club in 2017. In a wide-ranging conversation with FlamesNation on Tuesday, the 24-year-old Finn credited Coyotes head coach Andre Tourigny for renewing his confidence as a player — something he certainly seemed to have lost in the later stages of his tenure in Calgary.
“I think [Tourigny’s] communication, his realness … he’ll demand a lot from you, in the sense of work and effort, but then, on the other hand, he’ll give you freedom in terms of, he doesn’t expect you to be perfect,” Valimaki said. “He expects that there’s going to be mistakes, but as long as you work hard and your intentions are good and you’re trying to do the right things, he’ll trust you.
“The game’s so much different with confidence,” Valimaki continued. “He’s definitely helped me to get to the point where I have it again.”
Valimaki has arguably been the Coyotes’ top defenceman over their red-hot stretch, posting some of the best underlying zones on the team at both ends of the ice. He’s produced at a solid clip while acting as the defensive conscience on pairings with Gostisbehere or Troy Stecher.
Tourigny offered plenty of praise for the young defenceman after Tuesday’s practice in Scottsdale, particularly for his ability to step up with Gostisbehere and Jakob Chychrun unavailable.
“The trust never wavered for us,” Tourigny said. “When he arrived, we didn’t know him other than watching video. Watching a guy play and coaching him is two different things. He grew on us and we had confidence all the way through.
“When [Chychrun] and Ghost went down, I think we needed a guy who can make plays like him, who can play with poise and see the options and have the skill with the puck. But what he has more than a lot of guys, he has the courage of making plays. He has that swagger,” Tourigny added. “He does a lot of good things for us. Plus, he’s super competitive so, defensively, he gives his all every time.”
Let’s be clear: Valimaki reached a point where he needed to move on from Calgary. Even after an excellent stretch in the Liiga to start the 2020–21 season, he never rediscovered his game under Darryl Sutter and seemed to disconnect somewhat upon being assigned to the AHL in 2021–22. After a disastrous training camp showing last fall, it became clear the two sides had to part ways.
Now, with Michael Stone on IR and Chris Tanev at less than 100%, the Flames might be able to use a young defenceman on a tear. But it’s likely none of this would have happened for Valimaki had he stuck around in Calgary. That’s the way things sometimes transpire in the NHL.
Expect to see Valimaki manning the point on the Coyotes’ top man-advantage unit with Keller, Schmaltz, and the like when the Flames hit the ice at Mullett Arena on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. MT. The game will be nationally televised on Sportsnet in Canada.
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