Juuso Valimaki, a defenseman playing for Ilves in Liiga, the top professional men’s league in Finland, is healthy and making the necessary progress to assume a role with the Calgary Flames in 2020-21.
Valimaki (6-foot-2, 212 pounds), chosen No. 16 by the Flames in the 2017 NHL Draft, ranks second among defensemen in Liiga with 11 points (two goals, nine assists) and is plus-13 in 12 games. It’s an impressive start for Valimaki, who missed the entire 2019-20 season after tearing the ACL in his right knee during offseason training.
“Rehab was in Calgary with the Flames medical staff, and workouts took place mostly at the rink, especially in the early phase,” Valimaki said. “It was a lot of strength training a couple weeks after surgery, focusing on getting muscles back. We slowly transitioned to more weights, movement sessions, jumping and eventually skating. It went on for 7-8 months to basically where I am right now.
“I just have to make sure to manage the load on things with high impact like jumping and running, but otherwise training is normal.”
The 22-year-old is a two-way defenseman with a knack for making good entry passes while supporting the rush as the fourth man in the offensive zone.
“He’ll be part of our team [this season],” Flames general manager Brad Treliving said. “We felt he was really sort of right there before he got injured. In some ways, and there’s no silver lining for all this time off [due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus], but allowing him to get up, get lots of games under his belt before we resume, is a good thing.
“We felt that with some of the people we had coming, primarily [Valimaki], that we had to make room for him on our team, and we anticipate he’s going to be a big part of our present and our future.”
The Flames did not re-sign defensemen TJ Brodie (Toronto Maple Leafs), Erik Gustafsson (Philadelphia Flyers) and Travis Hamonic (unrestricted free agent) in part to make room for Valimaki, who scored three points (one goal, two assists) in 24 games for the Flames and 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 20 games for Stockton of the American Hockey League in 2018-19.
“I’ll make the team if I just do my work every day and play my game,” Valimaki said. “Playing right now helps to be in game shape, feeling good and confident. I think I’ll be ahead of many guys when things get going just because of that. I think I’ll be fine if I just play well like I know I will.”
Valimaki said he’s excited to have the chance to join a talented group of players in Calgary this season, which is targeted to begin Jan. 1.
“I mostly want to focus on [Ilves] and the players on our team, but one perfect example for me as a player is the leader and person in (Flames captain) Mark Giordano,” Valimaki said. “I really want to be around a player who can carry the team in all situations and lead the team like that. There are great players on our team, fun players to watch such as Johnny [Gaudreau]. I think Elias Lindholm is underrated, Dillon Dube will be a great player and already is one of the fastest guys in the League.
“There’s a lot to look forward to.”
Four other NHL prospects currently playing well in Finland:
Matias MacCelli, F, Ilves
MacCelli (5-foot-11, 165 pounds), Valimaki’s teammate, is averaging 16:21 of ice time and has scored 12 points (five goals, seven assists), including two power-play goals, in 12 games while on loan with Ilves. The 20-year-old, chosen by the Arizona Coyotes in the fourth round (No. 98) of the 2019 NHL Draft, scored 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) and averaged 16:19 of ice time in 43 games in Liiga last season.
Valtteri Puustinen, F, HPK
The 21-year-old, selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the seventh round (No. 203) of the 2019 draft, has scored eight points (three goals, five assists) and is averaging 17:32 of ice time in six games with HPK in Liiga. Puustinen (5-9, 183), who scored 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists) in 54 games last season, was in quarantine for three weeks after two unidentified members of HPK were exposed to family members who tested positive for COVID-19. He returned to the lineup Oct. 23 and scored twice in a 7-2 win against Pelicans.
Lukas Dostal, G, Ilves
The Czech Republic native is 8-0-1 with a 1.56 goals-against average and .946 save percentage in nine games in his third season in Liiga. Dostal (6-2, 174), taken by the Anaheim Ducks in the third round (No. 85) of the 2018 NHL Draft, signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Ducks on May 13, 2019. The 20-year-old has twice represented Czech Republic at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Eetu Luostarinen, F, KalPa
Luostarinen (6-3, 184), who possesses skill and snarl, was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round (No. 42) of the 2017 draft and traded to the Florida Panthers on Feb. 24. The 22-year-old has scored 11 points (four goals, seven assists), averaging 16:51 in ice time, in eight games while on loan with KalPa in Liiga. He scored 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in 44 games for Charlotte of the AHL in 2019-20, his first season in North America.
Five other NHL prospects to keep an eye on:
Daniil Chechelev (Calgary Flames), G, Russkie Chekhov: The 19-year-old (6-2, 183), a fourth-round pick (No. 96) in the 2020 NHL Draft, was 10-1-0 with a 2.00 GAA and .938 save percentage in 11 games in Russia’s junior league. He’s 3-0-1 with a 1.44 GAA and .954 save percentage in five games for Ryazan in the Supreme Hockey League, Russia’s second-highest level of professional hockey.
Oliver Tarnstrom (New York Rangers), F, AIK: The 18-year-old (6-1, 163), a third-round pick (No. 92) in the 2020 draft, has scored eight points (four goals, four assists) and is plus-6 in 12 games with AIK’s junior-20 team in J20 Nationell.
Martin Kaut(Colorado Avalanche), F, MODO: The 21-year-old (6-2, 190), a first-round pick (No. 16) in the 2018 draft, has scored three points (two goals, one assist) in three games on loan with MODO in Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-highest level of professional hockey. He scored three points (two goals, one assist) in nine games for the Avalanche last season.
Evan Bouchard (Edmonton Oilers), D, Sodertalje: The 21-year-old (6-3, 194), a first-round pick (No. 10) in the 2018 draft, has scored 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 16 games on loan with Sodertalje of Allsvenskan.
Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville Predators), F, Jokerit: The 21-year-old (5-10, 192), a first-round pick (No. 30) in the 2017 draft, has scored eight points (two goals, six assists) and has 31 shots on goal in 13 games on loan with Jokerit in the Kontinental Hockey League. He scored 36 points (21 goals, 15 assists) in 63 games for Milwaukee of the AHL in 2019-20.