Juuso Valimaki’s career was supposed to be very different, but then an ACL injury set him back for an entire year. Now, it looks as if there’s a chance the Calgary Flames’ patience with this young defenseman might turn out to be a wise choice. Valimaki is proving that he’s worth waiting for.
Valimaki’s Story of Tragic Injury
As the 2019-20 season was about to begin, Valimaki was set to take a spot on the Flames’ roster. During the 2017-18 season, the then-19-year-old Valimaki had played for the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League and scored 45 points in 43 games. He’d been the Flames’ first-round (16th overall) choice during the 2017 NHL Entry Draft; and, during 2019-20, he had hoped to make an early impression on the Flames coaches.
Valimaki had shown offensive scoring propensities early. In total, the left-shooting defenseman had scored 40 goals and added 98 assists in 159 games for WHL’s Tri-City Americans between 2015-18. However, he hadn’t been as fortunate in his early NHL games. In fact, he’d only scored two points in 22 games and hadn’t yet found his game at the NHL level.
Still, the Flames stuck with him and, although there was some noise that he might he moved at the 2019 trade deadline, he wasn’t. He finished the remainder of the 2018-19 season with the Stockton Heat and scored 14 points in 20 games at the AHL level.
Then 20 years old, the young defenseman was poised to get another shot with the Flames – until personal tragedy struck. In August 2019, Valimaki injured his ACL during offseason training; and, that injury required surgery. It was a serious enough injury that the word then was that he would be out indefinitely.
Flames fans now know that “indefinite” meant an entire season – in this case, 2019-20.
Until that injury, the Flames had counted on him cracking the team’s line-up, and during the 2019-20 season he was thought to have a lock on a spot in the team’s regular lineup. Instead, he missed the entire season.
Valimaki’s On His Way Back
After his ACL injury in August 2019 and after missing the 2019-20 season, Valimaki resumed skating. However, no one knew what to think: he still had a long road ahead if he was going to be ready for successful game action. Although the organization hoped Valimaki could remain one of the Flames’ top defensive prospects, a great deal of caution was taken to ensure he didn’t experience any setbacks during in his recovery process.
In September, Valimaki was loaned to Tampereen Ilves in his home country of Finland. In part, he would be able to play during a time when the NHL was on a COVID-19 induces hiatus and he could also stay close to home to do it.
That move turned out to be a wise one. Valimaki has found his old offensive magic in the Finnish Liiga and, to date, has scored two goals and 19 points in 19 games. The fact that he’s been doing so well is a great relief for a concerned Calgary franchise.
Not only is Valimaki scoring but he’s also a plus-15 this season with his Ilves team. Once again, the Flames franchise is beginning to hope the now-22-year-old defenseman can become a key part of the Flames defense in 2020-21.
In fact, given his offensive skill set the best case scenario is that he gets a chance to quarterback the Calgary power play sometimes during this season. If he stays healthy, Flames fans shouldn’t be surprised if that happened.
Now the Flames Have a Different – but a Good – Problem
Valimaki has another year left on his entry-level contract. As a result, this season could be important for him in two ways. First, just playing would be great for him and important for the team. Second, if he does play well, that good play would vault him into a much higher contract level.
There’s no doubt the Flames are high on the youngster. Should he play well, given his injury history, Calgary might try to sign him to a team-friendly longer-term contract. However, really strong play during the 2020-21 season could give him a financial boost during any negotiation process.
The Situation – So Far?
So far, Valimaki is tearing it up offensively in Finland. So far, Valimaki is staying healthy. And, so far, the Flames are counting on him to spend the entire season with them in the NHL.
Given how highly the organization thinks of Valimaki if he does play well how will the negotiation process go? Perhaps the size of his contract is important, but probably of more importance is that a young prospect can back successfully from what might have been a career-ending injury. It would be a real tragedy if that were not the case.
Flames fans will get a sense of how that quest goes when Valimaki competes for a roster spot on this season’s Flames team when NHL training camps begin – whenever that might be.
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