Juuso Valimaki experienced growing pains last season (2021 year in review)
Photo credit:Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports
By Ryan Pike1 year ago
Progress comes differently for every player. Some young hockey players frequently exceed expectations until they’re instant National Hockey League superstars. Others take what’s known as the Mark Giordano Route, where they start off under the hockey world’s radar and quietly become blue-chippers over a longer period of time.
While he’s missed essentially a season and a half of his first three seasons of pro hockey, Calgary Flames defender Juuso Valimaki continues to trend distinctly upward in his young NHL career.
A product of Nokia, Finland – a suburb of Tampere – Valimaki excelled at hockey from a young age. He worked his way up through the Ilves organization as a youth, playing in Finland’s top under-16 league as a 14-year-old, their top under-18 league as a 15-year-old and their under-20 league as a 16-year-old.
Seeking new challenges, Valimaki headed to the WHL as a 17-year-old, joining the Tri-City Americans via the annual import draft. He played two full WHL seasons – improving from 0.571 points per game as a rookie to 1.017 points per game as a sophomore – before being drafted by the Flames in the 2017 NHL Draft at 16th overall. Valimaki was impressed in his Draft+1 season for Tri-City, but an upper body injury and a trip to the World Juniors limited him to just 43 games. (He served as captain for Finland’s World Under-18 team in 2016 and their World Junior team in 2018.)
Valimaki went pro in 2018-19, hoping to continue the momentum of his junior career. Instead, his season was full of fits and starts. He made the Flames out of camp and just as he began to carve out a niche, he was sidelined with a high ankle sprain. He was out for weeks and played in the AHL after his return before playing in a pair of playoff games in Calgary’s five game loss to Colorado. (He had 3 points in 24 NHL games and 14 points in 20 AHL games.) He blew out his knee in the summer of 2019 during training and the ensuing surgery and rehab wiped out his entire 2019-20 campaign.
Valimaki played 19 games for Ilves in Finland’s SM-Liiga in the fall, his first organized hockey since the spring of 2019. He was one of the offensive leaders for Ilves, which fueled hopes that not only could Valimaki step in and be as good as he was pre-injury but perhaps he could take a big step.
He ended up playing 49 games for the Flames in 2020-21, posting 11 points – his points-per-game jumped from 0.125 in 2018-19 to 0.224 in 2019-20, just shy of double. He played his entire season on the third pairing, playing primarily with Nikita Nesterov or Michael Stone. He was a healthy scratch a handful of times, but ended up playing 68 games between the NHL and Finland after undergoing a significant ligament reconstruction. That, in itself, is fairly impressive.
Valimaki was improved both defensive and offensively from his performances in 2019-20. Relative to the rest of the team, Valimaki was only behind Stone in terms of Expected Goals For – granted, they faced the other team’s lesser lights. In terms of Expected Goals Against, Valimaki was sixth among regulars defensively; only Rasmus Andersson had weaker defensive underlyings.
Valimaki becomes a restricted free agent on July 28, and a unique type: he’s only played two pro seasons since he missed all of 2019-20 due to injury, so he’s a section 10.2(c) RFA and isn’t eligible to receive an offer sheet. Among free agents of all stripes, Valimaki’s in the category with the least leverage. Evolving Hockey’s projections are for a two year bridge contract at about $1.565 million per season.
The big question this season was whether Valimaki’s lost development time from his two big injuries stalled his progress. The good news is that Valimaki is a no-doubt NHL player and is trending in the right direction. He’s already an effective offensive defender who can play the left or right side, but needs a bit of sheltering due to some holes in his defensive game. If he can shore up that side of things, he’ll be taking the next step and moving up the rotation in no time.
2021 year in review
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