Cut to fit

Grow­ing pains ex­pected, but JU­USO VAL­I­MAKI fit­ting in nicely with Flames

Calgary Sun - - SPORTS - WES GIL­BERT­SON

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-year-old Val­i­maki told his par­ents he wouldn’t need those new skates they’d be 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, just turned 20 and now a rookie on the Cal­gary Flames’ back-end.

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,” re­called 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, but there will be some tough nights for any wide-eyed rook at the high­est level, and Thurs­day was one of ’em for Val­i­maki, 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 the Flames’ third pair­ing — was pestered into a turnover in his own zone. Val­i­maki hit the deck to try to block the pass­ing lane on a two-on-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 flat­footed as

Ju­uso Val­i­maki

for­ward Robert Thomas whis­tled past, and although he man­aged to keep his man to the out­side, the Blues rookie was able to slide the puck into the slot and it even­tu­ally wound up on 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 to go around in St. Louis. Thurs­day was a toughie for a lot of es­tab­lished vet­er­ans, too.)

Af­ter a puck-han­dling gaffe by 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 short-handed on two of those, Val­i­maki was only sad­dled with a mi­nus-2 rat­ing 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 three­game jun­ket with a Hockey Night In Canada clash against the Colorado Avalanche (8 p.m., CBC/Sport­snet One).

1) 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 right­now.

2) The Avalanche will try to pick on the gree­nie. 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 and with five mark­ers al­ready this fall — against a guy with four nights of NHL know-how. Gulp.

“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 go-to Mark Gior­dano when asked ear­lier this week about Val­i­maki. “I think most young guys will come in and the thing you de­fer 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

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.”

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. Loo.

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

He’ll slowly learn to be a bit more pa­tient with his de­fen­sive game. 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 so far.

“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

In high-pres­sure sit­u­a­tions, he’s calm, he’s poised and he makes plays. That’s hard to do as a young guy.”

play, and he’s al­ready able to do that. That’s where he’s com­fort­able, you know?”

The youngest guy on the Flames’ pay­roll to start this sea­son, Val­i­maki says he is feel­ing more and more com­fort­able with ev­ery suit­ing, with ev­ery shift and with ev­ery stride at this level.

A few days back, the WHL 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 mar­velled. “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.”

Flames cap­tain Mark Gior­dano

RICHARD LAM/PNG

JU­USO VAL­I­MAKI

AL CHAREST/POST­MEDIA

Van­cou­ver Canucks Jake Vir­ta­nen bat­tles against new guy Ju­uso Val­i­maki of the Flames at the Sco­tia­bank Sad­dle­dome on Oct. 6.

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