After the first professional season that he had, could it be anybody else? The Calgary Flames have done a nice job drafting and developing defensemen over Brad Treliving’s tenure and the top prospect on our annual rankings could potentially be one of the best in awhile. An agile, mobile and competitive blueliner, Finnish import Juuso Valimaki jumped to the pros in 2018-19 and made the NHL out of training camp.

His season went a bit sideways due to an ankle injury, but his truncated time with the Flames and Stockton Heat really provided glimpses of just how good Valimaki could be. For that reason, he was our panel’s unanimous selection as the number one prospect in the organization.

How did we get here?

Originally from Nokia, Finland, Valimaki played his youth hockey with NoPy and then moved onto higher level juniors with the Ilves organization. He had 12 points in 27 games as a 14-year-old in the Finnish under-16 league, then moved onto the under-18 league as a 15-year-old where he had 33 points in 44 games and was rookie of the year. At 16, he moved onto the under-20 league and had 20 points in 44 games.

With so much success in the Finnish leagues and dreams of the NHL in his mind, Valimaki was drafted by the Tri-City Americans in the 2015 CHL Import Draft and moved to the other side of the world as 17-year-old. He had 32 points in 56 games as a WHL rookie, then exploded for a point-per-game pace (61 points in 60 games) in his draft year. The Flames selected him 16th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft.

The following season, Valimaki fought through some injuries and managed 45 points in 45 games. Rather than return him to junior as an overager, the Flames opted to turn Valimaki pro and he managed to make the team following a tremendous training camp. To make room, the Flames shipped Brett Kulak to Montreal.

Stats, numbers, and everything therein 

While he made the NHL out of camp, Valimaki’s season was a bit up and down.

Games played Goals Assists Points
NHL 24 1 2 3
AHL 20 4 10 14

Valimaki made his NHL debut on Oct. 3, playing 10:19 with Michael Stone. He was minus-2. After Travis Hamonic’s opening night jaw injury, Valimaki ended up playing regularly with Rasmus Andersson on the third pairing and seemed to build up his offensive confidence a bit. He scored the game-winning goal, the first goal of his NHL career, in the Flames’ Oct. 17 win over Boston.

Things were going fairly well for Valimaki – he was getting infrequent puck touches and usually only getting a shot on net every game or two – until he suffered a high ankle sprain on Nov. 23 against Vegas. He was put on the injured reserve, where he remained until he was medically cleared prior to the NHL’s All-Star Break. He was assigned to Stockton on Jan. 22.

Valimaki returned to action on Jan. 25. He seemed to find his footing quickly, registering at least a shot in each of his first 13 games (and in 19 of his 20 Heat appearances). He quickly became the Heat’s go-to guy on defense – partly due to his strong play and partly due to necessity – and he became someone that touched all aspects of the game for the Heat. Stockton went 11-8-1 with Valimaki in the lineup, punctuated by a tremendous performance on Mar. 30 where he had five shots and the game-winning goal in overtime.

He was called up to the NHL immediately afterwards, playing a pair of late regular season games and a pair of playoff games against Colorado. He didn’t seem rusty at all.

Those in the know 

Speaking to us prior to Valimaki’s off-season injury, Stockton head coach Cail MacLean noted that the timing of Valimaki’s AHL arrival worked out really well in terms of getting his season on track:

I thought that the timing was really great for Val to come to our team. We had some key injuries on defense last year with some of our older players, some that we would look normally to be very reliant on. With them out, Val was able to be instantly put in a position where he logged a ton of minutes, he played all situations, and after having seen that I would’ve been confident putting him in that same position with more healthy players. We just would’ve been a better team, but there’s no doubt that Valimaki deserved to play a lot and there were times where we had to be cognizant of how much we were playing him not to wear him out because he’s very high on hockey sense and high on competitiveness and has the ability to return to the ice quickly, and so we were able to get him in a lot of situations and he really helped our team, but I think at the same time all those repetitions helped him as a young pro, too.

On the horizon

Valimaki was a virtual lock for a spot on the Flames 2019-20 roster. Unfortunately, he suffered an ACL injury that will require surgery and he’s going to be out of action for awhile. It’s unclear if he’ll be able to play at all in the regular season – projecting ACL injury recovery is tough, as it depends a lot on the severity of the tear. That said, Valimaki’s a competitive guy and it’s likely he’ll throw himself into his injury rehab.

In terms of the player’s recovery and the Flames’ tenuous salary cap situation, the best-case scenario could be Valimaki returning in time for the playoffs. He’s a dynamic, up-tempo player and if he’s fully recovered he could be a huge add for a team with big playoff aspirations.