FLAMES' VALIMAKI CAN'T WAIT FOR SEASON OPENER: `I'LL BE ROCKING'
Calgary's lone Finn says his goals are to stay healthy and be a Calder contender
If one of Juuso Valimaki's teammates suggests a friendly wager, he won't shy away.
As 2020 (finally) draws to a close, Valimaki plans to be plopped in front of his flatscreen for a New Year's Eve clash between Canada and Finland — both undefeated at 3-0 and vying for top seed in Group A — at the world junior hockey championships.
Of course, as the lone Finn on the Calgary Flames' big-league payroll, the 22-year-old will be rooting for the bunch in blue.
“I remember there was one time that I didn't accept, and the Finns won,” said Valimaki, referring to a quarter-final ouster a couple of years back. “So I won't be making the same mistake again. Gotta remember that.”
Part of the fun of the world juniors is an opportunity for NHL fans to get an early glimpse of the top prospects for their favourite teams.
It wasn't too long ago that Valimaki skated on that international stage, although it probably feels like ancient history to the broad-shouldered blueliner who expected to have 100-plus big-league appearances on his resume by now.
Instead, he's been stuck at 26 — that includes a pair of playoff dates — since April of 2019. Valimaki missed all of the 2019-20 campaign as he recovered from a torn knee ligament.
There probably isn't another guy in Calgary so excited for training camp to open Sunday at the Saddledome. He's pencilled in — it might actually be a Sharpie — for a full-time role on a revamped back-end during this shortened season.
“Obviously, there have been a lot of negatives, but there are some positives starting to creep up here,” Valimaki said. “One thing that is for sure is you learn not to take anything for granted. Now, being able to be in this spot again, being able to play games soon and be in this league, I think it's great and just gives a little bit more of that fire and the motivation to play better, to enjoy each day.
“Having that little taste of it and kind of knowing that I'll be able to play here, it gives you a little bit of confidence. And all of that combined, it just feels great that the season is around the corner.”
While the rest of the Flames regulars have been in off-season mode since being eliminated from the playoffs in August, Valimaki was able to knock off some rust during a two-and-a-half month loan to Tampereen Ilves, his hometown team in Finland's Liiga.
His stat-line with Ilves only upped the excitement in the C of Red — Valimaki produced at a point-per-game pace, notching two goals and 17 assists in 19 outings, and posted a plus-15 rating. Proof there was no trouble from that surgically repaired knee, he averaged 23:12 of icetime per night.
“I think it was the perfect way for me to kind of get into game shape and in the rhythm of playing hockey again,” Valimaki said. “I think it was just really, really helpful for me. I think it was perfect for the team. We had a good team, we won a lot of games, so I think everybody got the best out of it. And I had tons of fun.
“I didn't even remember how much fun hockey is — playing well, winning games and just doing it every day, doing the things that I've desired to do and love to do. So overall, I think that whole situation was perfect.”
For Valimaki, a perfect ending to 2020 would be watching the Finns pull off a victory in Thursday's round-robin capper against Jakob Pelletier, Connor Zary and the rest of Team Canada.
Regardless of what happens inside the world junior bubble in Edmonton, the prized defence prospect can hardly wait for 2021 to arrive.
For the first month or so of the 2019-20 season, Valimaki admittedly would be fighting back tears as he watched his buddies go to battle.
The young left-hander will likely start the new slate — the Flames open with a Jan. 14 roadie against the Winnipeg Jets — on the third pair, although he could soon push Noah Hanifin for a top-four gig and perhaps help reduce the workload for captain Mark Giordano.
While he missed out on some valuable game experience due to his extended injury absence, Valimaki says he is now “stronger in my head than I've ever been.” In other interviews, he's even mentioned his aspirations to emerge as a Calder Trophy contender. ( With 24 regular-season appearances so far, he's still eligible for top-rookie honours.)
“I have to start with being in the lineup and obviously the first thing I'm hoping for is to stay healthy,” Valimaki said. “And then it's starting to eat up more minutes. That's kind of how I played over in Finland, and that's what I've always been. I want to create some offence. I'm going to have a lot of energy. I'm going to bring a lot of positive energy to the team.
“And then for all of us, the goal is to win. That's the biggest thing. I want to do everything I can to help this team win, and I feel like I'm going to be able to do that. That playing time over in Finland got my confidence pretty high again, so I'm ready to go. And I'm usually the guy who puts the biggest expectations for myself, so I'll be rocking when we get going, let's just say that.”