Young de­fence­man shows poise in first taste of NHL

Calgary Herald - - SPORTS - WES GIL­BERT­SON wgilbert­son@post­ Twit­­bert­son

DEN­VER Within a few hours, Ju­uso Val­i­maki not only changed his mind, he changed his goal. He was go­ing to skate in the Na­tional Hockey League.

Crushed af­ter be­ing cut from a na­tional team try­out, a 13-yearold Val­i­maki told his par­ents he wouldn’t need those new skates they’d been talk­ing about. He was done.

By that even­ing, with fresh-from-the-box blades un­der his feet, he was sud­denly set on skat­ing on the big­gest stage. He was de­ter­mined.

“My mom (Mia) al­ways says in that game that night, she could see it in my eyes that some­thing changed,” re­called Val­i­maki, the rookie on the Cal­gary Flames’ back-end who just turned 20.

For a lengthy chunk of that game-changer of a day, there had been tears in those eyes.

“I didn’t make that team and I ac­tu­ally told my par­ents that I’m go­ing to quit hockey and that I didn’t want to play any­more. I’m done here,” said Val­i­maki, who hails from Nokia, Fin­land. “We were go­ing to buy new skates that day and I said, ‘I don’t need skates. I’m not go­ing to play any­more.’

“I cried for five hours and went to buy the skates and then we ac­tu­ally had a game that night, so I said, ‘What­ever, let’s show ev­ery­body they made a mis­take and I can be a player.’

“That’s how it changed. Ev­ery­thing hap­pened quick. Af­ter that, it’s al­ways been in my mind that I’ll play in the NHL. I guess I’m do­ing pretty well.”

Darn right he is, al­though there will be some tough nights, as there is for any wide-eyed rookie at the high­est level. Thurs­day was one of them for Val­i­maki, who was stuck on the ice for four goals against in a 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues at En­ter­prise Cen­ter.

The score was tied in the first when Ras­mus An­der­s­son — the other fresh­man on Cal­gary ’s third de­fen­sive pair­ing — was pestered into a turnover in his own zone. Val­i­maki hit the deck to try to block the pass­ing lane on a twoon-one, but puck-car­rier Bray­den Schenn waited pa­tiently be­fore feed­ing line­mate David Per­ron and the hosts had a lead they would not re­lin­quish.

Three shifts later, Val­i­maki was caught flat-footed as for­ward Robert Thomas whis­tled past, and al­though he kept his man to the out­side, the Blues rookie was able to slide the puck into the slot and it wound upon the stick of Joel Ed­mund­son for a glove-side strike.

(Let’s pause for a mo­ment to be crys­tal clear that there was all sorts of blame togo around in St. Louis. Thurs­day was a tough game for a lot of es­tab­lished vet­er­ans, too.)

Af­ter a puck-han­dling gaffe by Flames goalie Mike Smith, Val­i­maki had the best view in the house of Per­ron’s power-play gimme early in the sec­ond. The kid was also among the penalty-killers try­ing to avoid the down­pour of hats af­ter Per­ron fired through traf­fic for his third of the even­ing.

Since the Flames were short­handed on two of those goals, Val­i­maki was only sad­dled with plus-mi­nus of mi­nus-2 in St. Loo.

“Ev­ery­body is go­ing to have bad games and teams are go­ing to have bad games,” Val­i­maki said af­ter Fri­day’s af­ter­noon prac­tice at Pepsi Cen­ter in Den­ver. “We just have to learn from it, take ev­ery­thing out of it, keep the pos­i­tive things in the mind, too.

“And just move for­ward. Play the next game.”

The next game comes Satur­day, and there are a cou­ple of things you can count on as the Flames wrap this three-game jun­ket with a Hockey Night in Canada clash against the Colorado Avalanche (8 p.m., CBC/Sport­snet One):

Al­though bench boss Bill Peters hinted he might split the young­sters, Cal­gary’s coach­ing staff will con­tinue to show faith in Val­i­maki, not sim­ply be­cause he has gobs of po­ten­tial but be­cause they also need him to be an im­por­tant part of the “right now.”

The Avalanche will try to pick on the green­horns. With last change on home ice, they must be lick­ing their chops at the thought of send­ing out su­per­star cen­tre Nathan MacK­in­non — a Hart Tro­phy fi­nal­ist last sea­son who has five goals al­ready this fall — against a guy with four nights of NHL knowhow.


“In high-pres­sure sit­u­a­tions, he’s calm, he’s poised and he makes plays. That’s hard to do as a young guy,” praised Flames cap­tain and de­fen­sive leader Mark Gior­dano when asked ear­lier this week about Val­i­maki. “I think most young guys will come in and the thing you def er to is to try not to make a mis­take, but I don’t see that in him. I think he’s mak­ing plays. He’s jump­ing in. He wants that puck.

“Go­ing back to when I was first in the league, I feel like you’re a bit ten­ta­tive. And when you’re ten­ta­tive, you can al­most tell when guys are like that out there. He has none of that in his game right now, so it’s great to see.”

Like­wise, the Flames can’t be too ten­ta­tive with the blue-line blue-chip­per. That would send the wrong mes­sage, es­pe­cially af­ter things went a lit­tle side­ways in St.Louis.

Val­i­maki still logged 16:58 of ice time against the Blues, in­clud­ing three min­utes and change as a penalty killer.

He’ll learn to be a bit more pa­tient de­fen­sively. The Flames are en­cour­aged by his will­ing­ness to join the rush, but ev­ery up-and-comer can some­times pick his spots bet­ter.

Still, there’s a lot to like about what No. 8 has shown.

“Whether you use ‘poise’ or ‘com­po­sure’ as your word to de­scribe him, he seems com­fort­able in pres­sure,” said Flames as­sis­tant coach Ryan Huska, re­spon­si­ble for work­ing with the rear­guards. “And I think for a young de­fence­man just kind of feel­ing his way right now, that’s a ter­rific sign of what he is go­ing to grow into. He un­der­stands where pres­sure is com­ing from. He knows how to make the lit­tle plays to get our­selves out of the de­fen­sive zone, for ex­am­ple, cleanly.

“For me, when you see the com­po­sure is when there are two guys com­ing at him and he’s able to make that lit­tle pass into the mid­dle of the ice. That, to me, is an NHL play, and he’s al­ready able to do that. That’s where he’s com­fort­able, you know?”

The youngest guy on Cal­gary’s pay­roll to start this sea­son, Val­i­maki said he is feel­ing more com­fort­able with ev­ery game, with ev­ery shift, with ev­ery stride.

A few days back, the Tri-City Amer­i­cans alum was telling re­porters he hadn’t even con­sid­ered some of the perks of big-league em­ploy­ment, like the seem­ingly end­less sup­ply of food or the speed of skedad­dling from city to city.

“Even just when you walk through the air­port and you’re not in the line,” he said. “I’ve trav­elled a ton dur­ing my ca­reer, long flights and ev­ery­thing, and three hours be­fore the flight you go to the air­port and it’s line, line, line, line.…

“And now, you just walk to the plane.”

In the NHL, you skip the lines. You can’t skip the lessons. “He likes to see him­self in clips when he does things the right way and he likes to see him­self in clips where he could maybe do some­thing dif­fer­ent po­si­tion­ally or with the puck,” Huska said of Val­i­maki. “So he’s a real stu­dent of the game, too. He’s been a joy to be around.”


De­spite an off-night in a 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Thurs­day, 20-year-old Cal­gary Flames rookie de­fence­man Ju­uso Val­i­maki has been draw­ing rave re­views.

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