It’s been a week of familiar faces returning to the Scotiabank Saddledome for the first time.
First, it was Matthew Tkachuk. Two days later, it was Sean Monahan. And on Monday, it’ll be Juuso Valimaki and the Arizona Coyotes taking on the Calgary Flames in a Western Conference showdown.
Both the Flames and Coyotes are currently positioned outside the playoff picture, although only one of these teams has any legitimate post-season aspirations. The Coyotes are taking a long-term path toward contention, which means they want to be as bad as possible this year to secure to a high-end draft pick.
The Stanley Cup is Calgary’s desired prize; Arizona wants Connor Bedard. But the Coyotes are also trying to build a strong core to support whomever they select at the top of the 2023 NHL Draft. That’s where Valimaki comes into play.
Originally selected by the Flames in the first round (No. 16 overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft, Valimaki spent parts of three seasons in Calgary before being claimed off waivers by the Coyotes this past October.
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The Tampere, Finland product dealt with numerous injuries during his tenure with the Flames and spent most of the 2021–22 campaign relegated to the American Hockey League. He struggled in his looks with the Flames last year and failed to make an impact with the team during the most recent training camp.
The Flames elected to move on from Valimaki at the start of the 2022–23 season. The Coyotes pounced.
After being claimed by Arizona, Valimaki appeared on Sportsnet 960 The Fan in Calgary and repeatedly told host Pat Steinberg that he “really enjoys hockey again” — and it’s shown through in his performance.
Through 18 games with the Coyotes, Valimaki — primarily playing with young standout J.J. Moser — has six points, is averaging 17:07 in all situations, and ranks second on the team with a 52.63 expected goals percentage at five-on-five. He’s one of just three Coyotes regulars (along with Jakob Chychrun and Nick Schmaltz) above 50% in that category.
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Valimaki currently ranks fourth among Coyotes defencemen (behind Chychrun, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Moser) with an average of 14:21 per game at five-on-five play. He’s among the team leaders in scoring chance rates, shots for and against, and defensive zone faceoffs.
“All you can really ask, as a player, is for an opportunity,” Valimaki told Steinberg back in October. “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.
“I’ve always said it, the more you play, the easier it is. 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 scored his first goal as a Coyote against the Dallas Stars back on Nov. 3.
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Valimaki still has a long way to go before he can fully establish himself as a bona fide top-four NHL defenceman, but he’s played well in Arizona and is a safe bet to be re-signed by the team as a restricted free agent this coming summer.
The Coyotes aren’t close to being a contending team, but they’ve managed to do a pretty good job of keeping games close this season. Starting goaltender Karel Vejmelka deserves a lot of credit for that, having gone 6–6–3 with a .913 save percentage through the first two months of the season.
Currently approaching the end of a daunting 14-game road trip as the NHL-standard facilities at Mullett Arena near completion, the Coyotes rank seventh in the Central Division with a 7–11–4 record.
The Coyotes have a respectable 4–5–3 record on their road swing with two games remaining (in Calgary and Edmonton) before they can return home. They haven’t allowed more than four goals in a game once in the first 12 games of the trip.
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Valimaki isn’t the Coyotes’ most promising young defenceman — that honour belongs to Moser. He’s not their best defenceman, either — that’s Chychrun, although he’s on the verge of skipping town.
But, after an unceremonious end to his tenure in Calgary, Valimaki has managed to carve out a new niche for himself on a rebuilding Coyotes team. While the Coyotes are almost certain to move the likes of Troy Stecher and Gostisbehere for future assets at some point, Valimaki is a player they’ll likely keep around.
For whatever reason, Valimaki needed to move on from the Flames — and, with a logjam on defence, Calgary was ready to cut bait. Thus far, the change of scenery has worked out in Valimaki’s favour.