You don’t have to tell Juuso Välimäki that his shortened 2020-21 campaign with the Calgary Flames was a bust. It seems everyone had sky-high expectations for the 22-year-old Finn, with some pundits even predicting the rookie defenceman had an outside shot at winning the Calder trophy. Välimäki was fresh off a successful stint in the Finnish Liiga league, and was finally healthy after a knee injury kept him off the ice for the entire 2019-20 NHL season. 2020-21 was supposed to be his coming out party.
Välimäki’s 2020-21Season Was a Rollercoaster Ride From Start to Finish
Paired up with Nikita Nesterov on the third unit, the product of Tampere, Finland had a good start to his first full year of professional hockey. He earned rave reviews for his ability to maintain offensive possession at even strength, and for getting some time on the penalty kill. That very solid first month of the campaign gave way to inconsistent play and a knack for bad giveaways. By the time new head coach Darryl Sutter arrived in Cowtown, Välimäki found himself in the doghouse, and at times, a healthy scratch.
Talking to the morning show on Sportsnet 960 this week, Välimäki admitted that he didn’t play in as many games as he would have liked, and that adjusting to a new coaching style in the middle of a season was not easy.
“I’ve never had a coach who pushes you that hard, and who will tell you everything he thinks, straight away, to your face,” he said on the show. “So, I think I had a tough time to manage that at the start, because it was completely new to me.”
The Flames’ first-round pick from the 2017 draft also said he’s had very productive conversations with his new bench boss since their rocky start, and promises he’ll get better under Sutter’s tutelage. I think the relationship must be pretty solid, because the young blueliner just signed a new two-year, $3.1 million deal with an AAV of $1.55 million.
The 2-Year Extension is a Vote of Confidence, Chance For Redemption
With the Flames re-upping Välimäki just days ago, the young d-man is getting another chance to prove he’s a big part of this team’s future core group. After a fairly quick negotiation between his camp and team management, the 22-year-old said he’s satisfied with the new contract.
“I’m happy about the deal. It gives me two years to prove myself fully. I know I played last year, but at the end of the day I haven’t been able to play too many games yet, so that gives me time to do so and to really start to live up to my own and everyone else’s expectations. From the team’s standpoint, I think I can be worth that money, and I know I can be worth a lot more too.”Juuso Välimäki, to Sportsnet 960
The fact that the Flames chose to give Välimäki a two-year deal (unlike the one-year league minimum pact they offered to fellow defenceman Oliver Kylington) means the team still has a lot of confidence in the young defender and recognizes his huge upside. With the departure of Mark Giordano to the expansion Seattle Kraken, the Flames’ top two pairings are not set in stone, and No. 6 knows he has a chance to move up on the team’s depth chart.
Välimäki sees a lot of similarities between his game and the club’s former captain, and would love to the chance to prove that he’s ready for more responsibility and to someday fill Giordano’s big shoes:
“His playing style kind of fits mine,” he said in the interview. “I think that’s eventually something I want to be: playing the first power play unit, being out there on the first penalty kill unit and playing 25 minutes a night. I want to put up points and put everything on the line for the team and be a leader.”
The 22-Year-Old Blueliner Thinks he Can be a Difference Maker
When asked what he would like to see happen this upcoming season, Välimäki did not mince words in his interview with Sportsnet 960. This is a player who knows he has a lot more to give and desperately wants a chance to prove himself at the highest level.
“I want to be a top four defenceman. I think in a best-case scenario, there will be games where I’ll be a big part of changing the game, or winning the game. I think that’s what I’ve done in my best nights in junior or in Finland last year or in the past where the two-way game is so strong and the minutes are so high that you just change the game… You can say, this guy was really a game-changer tonight. That’s what I’m looking for. Overall, I want to become a bigger piece of this team and I want to help this team win.”Juuso Välimäki, to Sportsnet 960
The one thing that everyone should remember is that Välimäki is still very much a work in progress. Since making his NHL debut at the tender age of 19, the former first rounder only has 73 regular season and two playoff games under his belt, which isn’t even the equivalent of a single 82-game campaign.
While his new two-year extension is certainly a good sign the Flames want a bigger contribution from their confident defender, it also means Välimäki has at least a couple of seasons to show the hockey world that he is the true heir apparent to Giordano, and that his next contract will be “worth a lot more.”