THERE’S NO QUIT IN FLAMES’ VALIMAKI
Young defenceman shows poise in first taste of NHL
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.