Juuso Valimaki’s assignment to the AHL officially kicked in on Friday. But there’s no guarantee when, or if, he’ll be back with the Calgary Flames.
The 23-year-old has played just once in more than a month and has suited up for only eight games this season. Most of them came when Nikita Zadorov was nursing an undisclosed injury early in the year.
“He’s a young guy, he’s gotta play,” Flames head coach Darryl Sutter said from Anaheim on Friday (via Flames TV). “Just very clear, he’s gotta play lots.”
That echoed comments from GM Brad Treliving last week on Calgary radio, and captured the spirit of many Flames fans who wondered what it might take for Valimaki to surpass Zadorov on the depth chart. But Zadorov has a quality Sutter values. The coach believes heavy players with bite are necessary to be competitive, and it was the maturation of Oliver Kylington’s game that kept Valimaki on the sidelines.
“Quite honestly, he got beat out in training camp by (Kylington), not by Zadorov. He got beat out by Shill,” Sutter said. He’s got to get back to earning it and showing it rather than bestowed upon him.
“He probably got ahead of the curve a little bit. Heck, I think there’s four guys older than him in Stockton, too, on defence. He’s the youngest defenceman here and it doesn’t serve any purpose to … ”
Sutter didn’t finish the sentence but reaffirmed what he said earlier, that Valimaki needs to play. The Calgary Flames’ first-round pick from the 2017 draft is expected to get plenty of ice time with the Stockton Heat, which he may actually welcome after sitting idle for so long. Earlier in the year, he voiced his frustrations to Finnish reporter Ville Touru of Ilta-Sanomat.
Second time in the AHL for young Valimaki
Valimaki played 20 games for the Heat in 2018-19 and posted solid numbers with four goals and 14 points. He also played 24 NHL games that season but a high ankle sprain cut his year short. A brutal knee injury during summer training needed surgery and he sat out the entire 2019-20 campaign.
After missing that much time, Valimaki struggled in last year’s shortened season, and he has yet to show the upside we saw from him as a rookie. He’s been mentioned in many NHL trade scenarios because of his lack of opportunity and his draft pedigree.
He may regain his confidence with the Heat. A few months down the road, or in next year’s training camp, he may make the kind of impact Kylington has made in taking advantage of his own opportunity this season.
“I don’t have any timeline,” Sutter said when asked when we might see Valimaki back with the Calgary Flames. “Brad (Treliving) and I talked about it. I just want him to go and play lots. The foundation of his game, he’s got to get that in order in terms of how you have to play in the NHL to be successful.
“I explained to all these defencemen last year at the end of last year. There’s 32 teams, there’s 250 defencemen. Are you going to be six, seven, eight or are you going to be three, four, five? If you’re just six, seven, eight, then you’re down into that 250 group and there’s somebody else that wants to take your place. So you’ve gotta take the next step to be in that group where you’re looked upon as a valuable player to your team.”