The Calgary Flames selected Juuso Valimaki in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft. After hitting a home run with Matthew Tkachuk the year before at sixth overall, the Flames were looking to bolster their blueline the next year, and at 16th overall went a little off the board with the Valimaki selection.
He has yet to crack the NHL full-time, but Valimaki looked to be on the way to becoming a great defender in the league.
Last season was supposed to be his coming out party on the Flames’ blueline, but he unfortunately suffered a catastrophic knee injury in Finland prior to training camp, an injury that kept him out of the lineup for the entire season.
Now, he’s fully recovered and has never looked better.
Aside from being selected in the first round of the draft, Valimaki has impressed at every level. In his draft year he put up 61 points in 60 WHL games including 19 goals. The following year, which was ultimately his last year in junior, he had 45 points in 43 WHL games, and also had four points in five games as the captain for Finland’s team at the World Juniors.
The following season, he split time between the NHL and AHL, playing 24 and 20 games in each league respectively. He more than held his own and if not for tearing his ACL, he may have been a key player on Calgary’s blueline last season.
Now, with the pandemic forcing stoppages in most North American leagues, Valimaki has been playing with Ilves in the Liiga, the top Finnish men’s league.
Valimaki in the Liiga
To say Valimaki has impressed in the Liiga would be an understatement. Ilves is sporting a record of 11-3, good for first place in the league, and Valimaki is second on the team with 14 points in 14 games. He leads the league in scoring by a defenseman, and is third in terms of points per game only to 24-year-old Julius Honka who has four points in three games, and 23-year-old Vili Saarijavi who has 13 points in 12 games.
Valimaki turned 22 just weeks ago.
It’s important to note that Valimaki didn’t score a single point in his first two games in the Liiga. Since getting his feet wet in those two contests, he scored 14 points in the next 12 games.
Jokke Nevalainen, the head of European scouting for DobberProspects, recently said that Valimaki was without a doubt the best defenseman, and might just be the best player in the entire league. That’s high praise for a player many expected to just contend for a regular NHL roster spot this season.
Valimaki is in elite company
As a 22-year-old, and a young 22-year-old at that, Valimaki finds himself in elite company. Yes, the sample size is small and we’re not talking about a whole season of data, so there is definitely the chance Valimaki’s production drops off. That being said, the Liiga is likely as strong as its ever been with the injection of NHL talent due to the pandemic, so Valimaki’s torrid start holds weight regardless.
Valimaki currently has a 1.00 points per game as a 22-year-old. The next 22-year-old Liiga defender is Jakob Stenqvist, a sixth round pick of the Dallas Stars in 2016, who has 10 points in 16 games, good for 0.67 P/GP. This season, Valimaki is in a tier all by himself.
Looking back through Liiga history, the list of defenders who have hit that 1.00 P/GP mark is extremely small. The last defenseman to score at that rate also happened to be 22 years old though, and it was all the way back in 2012-13.
Erik Karlsson put up 34 points in 31 games (1.13 P/GP). Does that name ring a bell?
Before Karlsson, you have to go back to the 2006-07 season when 28 year old Cory Murphy scored 50 points in 45 games (1.11 P/GP).
If Valimaki can keep up his pace, he’ll join Karlsson in truly elite Liiga company. Not a bad peer to have.
How do Valimaki’s stats project?
The only real translation we can make between Valimaki’s Liiga performance and the NHL is using NHLe. It’s a rough metric that looks solely at P/GP, but it still leads to some interesting findings.
Using Christian Roatis’ (@CRoatis) NHLe calculator, the ratio between the Liiga and NHL 1:37.064. That means that one point in the NHL equates to approximately 37 points in the Liiga. This is based on P/GP, so the math on Valimaki is simple: right now, his scoring pace in the Liiga would equate to him having 37 points over the course of a full 82 game NHL season.
For a rookie defender, that’s not bad at all. If Valimaki had hit that mark last season, he would have finished second on the team in terms of P/GP. If he had played all 70 games, he would have finished first among all defensemen on the team in points.
Pencil him in
Valimaki should officially be part of your projected 2020-21 Flames roster. Not only because of how he’s torching the Liiga right now, but because of all the tools he has and versatility he offers.
He’s played a key role for Ilves on both sides of special teams, and perhaps more imporantly given the Flames’ lack of depth on the right side, Valimaki has played on both sides of the ice.
If the path of least resistacen to the NHL is on the right side, don’t count Valimaki out of that conversation. He’s dynamic, confident, and there are no doubts that he is back to 100% health wise.
As always, time will tell
Don’t get your hopes up just yet though, as Valimaki is largely unproven at the NHL level. He’s still got a long way to go before he can be considered a true NHL player and a top-four defender after that. That being said, there’s no reason to expect Valimaki not to step into an NHL role this season and make some noise.
If I had to predict defense pairings at this point in time, it would look something like this:
Giordano – Andersson
Hanifin – Tanev
Valimaki – Nesterov
It sure seems like there is a path for Valimaki to make the NHL and become a permanent member of the Flames’ blueline. If his play for Ilves is any indication, he’s a lock to make the team, but as always, time will tell.