Former Calgary Flames defenceman Juuso Valimaki is off to a strong start in the desert.
The Arizona Coyotes claimed Valimaki off waivers from the Flames in early October, giving the 24-year-old Finn a much-welcomed change of scenery.
Through his first four games with the Coyotes, Valimaki has a pair of assists while averaging 17:11 per game. He logged a season-high 18:55 in a 6–3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday while skating alongside J.J. Moser on Arizona’s top pair.
Valimaki appeared on Thursday’s edition of Flames Talk on Sportsnet 960 The Fan with Pat Steinberg and Logan Gordon to discuss his move from Calgary to Arizona and his early success with his new team.
“All you can really ask, as a player, is for an opportunity,” Valimaki said. “I’m just really happy that I got to kind of start fresh again and just get an opportunity to play and be in every night and not just play 10 minutes.
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“I’ve always said it, the more you play, the easier it is,” Valimaki added. “When you play those kinds of minutes, it’s just kind of the easiest game for me, I think. So, to be able to do that now, it feels awesome.”
Valimaki joined the Coyotes during their season-opening six-game road trip, although he was initially unable to play games in the United States due to a work visa issue.
The Coyotes will play their first game at the brand-new Mullett Arena on Friday evening, with Valimaki expected to be in the lineup. But the left-handed defender told Steinberg and Gordon he enjoyed the chance to get to know his new teammates away from home.
“We had a long road trip,” Valimaki said. “I think it was good for me especially to be on the road [with the Coyotes], get to know some of the new faces, everyone around a little bit more.
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“Overall, it’s been really good, and I really enjoy hockey again,” Valimaki added. “It’s really fun going to the rink every day now, I’m really excited for games, and I think it’s been exactly what I needed so far.”
Valimaki spent much of the 2021–22 season with the Stockton Heat of the American Hockey League, appearing in just eight NHL games with the Flames before being demoted.
He returned to the NHL for one last game with the Flames in April before tagging along for Stockton’s run to the AHL Western Conference Final, recording two points (both assists) in 10 Calder Cup Playoff games.
With Arizona, Valimaki is relishing the opportunity to play NHL hockey every other night.
“It’s crazy how confidence kind of drives everything,” Valimaki said. “When you don’t have it, it’s tough to play. When you get it back, even in a short period like this, in a couple of days or a couple of games, you play some good hockey.
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“Then, all of a sudden, you feel like a completely different player.”
Valimaki currently leads the Coyotes with a 42.36 on-ice 5v5 expected goals percentage (via NST) in the early goings of the 2022–23 regular season. He’s helped the Coyotes outshoot and outchance their opponents in his short time since joining the team.
André Tourigny, Valimaki’s new head coach with the Coyotes, has an extensive track record of developing young players dating back to his time with the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League.
Valimaki credited Tourigny and his teammates for creating a welcoming environment in Arizona.
“The vibe is friendly, kind, we want to work hard and that’s kind of what coach is all about, working hard,” Valimaki said. “What I also like is, he doesn’t expect us to be perfect, because nobody is.”
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But Valimaki also had plenty of positive things to say about his time with the Flames, the club that originally selected him in the first round (No. 16 overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft.
The 6’2″ defender played the first 82 games of his NHL career with the Flames, scoring three goals and 16 points over parts of three regular seasons. He struggled to remain healthy through his most critical development years and had a tough time drawing into the lineup on a consistent basis after Darryl Sutter took over as head coach in 2021.
“There’s the thankfulness for Tre and for the organization to draft me, believe in me, give me the first taste in the league playing games, and all those memories, especially early on,” Valimaki said. “Then there’s that injury, and I’ve got nothing but good things to say to everyone who worked through that with me.
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“I’ve said it before, the organization was very supportive and helped me through that tough time very nicely and I’m grateful for that,” Valimaki added. “I gave everything that I had during those years that I was there and I’m grateful that I got to play in that city.”
Now, as Calgary prepares for another round of snow days very soon, Valimaki is enjoying life in plus-20 — er, plus-80 — temperatures.
He certainly didn’t hesitate when Steinberg asked him about the best part of living down in Arizona.
“Everybody probably knows the answer, but — gotta be the weather,” Valimaki said. “I’m not going to miss minus-30 in the winter, there’s no chance.”