This was not the way Juuso Valimaki saw his 2021-22 season unfolding. After the young blueliner signed a two-year, $3.1 million deal with the Calgary Flames late last summer, Valimaki was hoping a fresh start would clear the foul smell of a 2020-21 campaign that saw him start strong, but finish poorly. A very solid first month playing on the third pairing with Nikita Nesterov gave way to inconsistent play and a knack for bad giveaways.
By the end of the 2020-21 season, the Finnish defender found himself in head coach Darryl Sutter’s doghouse and a healthy scratch. After a so-so performance at the Flames’ 2021-22 training camp, the 23-year-old actually made the opening night roster. But, after some very mediocre play, Valimaki lost his spot in the lineup to Nikita Zadorov a couple of weeks into the season and never got it back.
Disgruntled by his lack of playing time, the young Finn didn’t do himself any favors by calling out his coaches and venting to Finnish media about being a healthy scratch seven games in a row. A couple of weeks after his complaints about being banished to the press box went public, Valimaki found himself on the move and back in the American Hockey League (AHL).
Valimaki Sent Down to the Stockton Heat in Early December
After being a healthy scratch for 14 games, the Flames assigned Valimaki to the Stockton Heat on Dec. 2. In the eight contests that he suited up for Calgary before being sent down to the minors, the 23-year-old defender notched two assists while playing on the third pairing with Eric Gudbranson. It’s not like the youngster was terrible, but Sutter simply thought Zadorov matched up better with Gudbranson and felt it was more constructive for Valimaki to play a tonne of minutes in the AHL, get some special teams experience and regain some of his lost swagger.
After a promising start to his time with the Heat, Valimaki found himself in and out of the lineup in December and January due to COVID-19 protocols and nagging injuries. I was fully expecting that a player with 81 NHL games under his belt would immediately make a huge impact, but instead of dominating the AHL, the young Finn struggled at times. On Jan. 29, the frustration of a season gone wrong boiled over in a game between the Heat and the Ontario Reign.
Valimaki Slapped With 3-Game Suspension for Abuse of an Official
Playing in his first game since being injured on Jan. 9, Valimaki got into a tussle with Reign captain Brett Sutter after a whistle. The two players definitely have a history, as it was Sutter who injured Valimaki and knocked him out of Stockton’s lineup for 20 days. After being pulled apart, the Flames prospect shoved an official to try and get back at the Ontario captain. That unfortunate contact got the Heat defenceman tossed from the game and slapped with an automatic three-game suspension.
Valimaki has missed a lot of games in Stockton this season – due to his suspension, minor injuries, testing positive for COVID-19 and even an immigration papers issue. To say this year has been disappointing would be a major understatement. When he was shipped down to the minors in early December, I’m sure the young D-man was hoping to be back with the big club in short order. While that didn’t happen, the highly-touted prospect finally got recalled on April 4 to join the Flames on their west coast road trip, along with Stockton teammates Connor Mackey and Adam Ruzicka.
Valimaki (Briefly) Back in Flames Lineup vs. Sharks
Before being inserted into the Flames lineup on April 7, the last time the native of Tampere, Finland appeared in an NHL game was way back on Nov. 21, 2021, where he logged 16:41 of ice time and picked up an assist in a 4–0 win over the Boston Bruins. Because the third pairing of Gudbranson and Zadorov couldn’t go against the San Jose Sharks, Valimaki and Mackey got into the contest at the last minute – both hoping to make the most of the opportunity.
The duo’s placement in the lineup told you a lot about the current pecking order of the Stockton D-core. Mackey was paired up with top-four guy Chris Tanev, while Valimaki was slotted on the third unit with usual seventh defenceman Michael Stone. After the 4-2 victory, Sutter was asked about the play of Mackey, Valimaki and Stone but he only doled out a compliment to one of the three. “I thought that Connor (Mackey) served us very well,” Sutter said. “I think there’s some work to do with the other guys.”
Valimaki Thinks He Should Still Be an NHL Regular
I’m sure Valimaki was disappointed that he wasn’t the standout defenceman in his first Flames game in almost five months, but he has done his best to stay positive and not let his current status as an AHLer get in the way of his NHL aspirations. Speaking with the media after being recalled from the Heat last week, the young Finn put on a brave face and admitted that he has to keep improving to secure a permanent spot on the big club. He also showed a defiant streak by suggesting that he shouldn’t have been sent down to the minors in the first place.
“I played some really good hockey at the start of the year when I was up here”, he told reporters. “I kind of had the feeling that I played good enough to prove that I’m an NHL player and it ended up not being the case. I have the feeling I did everything I could and that helped me move on and focus on each day… That last NHL game that I played (on Nov. 21, 2021), I think it’s a really good game. So, that’s still my latest memory of it, and in my head, I can play like that every night.”
Valimaki Has Fallen in the Flames’ Defenceman Depth Chart
Valimaki has never suffered from a lack of confidence, so if he thinks he should still be on the Flames’ roster, that’s his prerogative. However, after his lone appearance on the recent west coast road trip, the young defender has once again been a healthy scratch. Meanwhile, Mackey just played in this third consecutive game with the big club and has clearly supplanted Valimaki as the go-to guy when the Flames need help from the farm.
Mackey is having a terrific season in Stockton – his five goals and 31 helpers in 53 games leads all Heat blueliners and is among the top tier in AHL D-men. Meanwhile, Valimaki sits a distant fourth in defenceman team scoring with just two goals and 15 assists in 30 games played. However, I think it’s far too early to label the 23-year-old Finn a bust or a player the Flames should simply trade out of town to cut their losses.
Valimaki has faced a lot of adversity in his career thus far, so I’m confident that he’ll fight to keep his NHL dream alive. I know it’s tough for a guy who’s already played 82 games in the big league to have to prove himself again, but he should look no further than teammate Oliver Kylington for inspiration. Kylington bounced between Stockton and Calgary multiple times since the 2015-16 season. In all, he played 190 AHL games and 95 NHL games before finally becoming a Flames’ top-four fixture this year.
Valimaki still has one year left on his contract with the Flames after the 2021-22 season wraps up. The 2017 first-round draft pick still has plenty of time to prove his worth to this organization and show the hockey world that he belongs in the NHL. If his path requires more seasoning in the AHL just like Kylington’s did, then the Finnish prospect should take his lumps, challenge himself and make the most of his opportunities. Nobody gets unlimited do-overs.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.