Juuso Valimaki turned 24 years old on Thursday, but his journey with the Calgary Flames has aged him quickly.
That isn’t a knock on his abilities. On the contrary, it’s a bit of a testament to his maturity and approach. The kid has been through a lot in a handful of years. He’s had extreme highs and the lowest of professional lows. From severe injuries to the challenges of being a pandemic prospect, Valimaki has the mental toughness of a much older player these days.
He may need it in the next few days. The big Finnish blueliner is at a crossroads with the Calgary Flames. Based on the lineup iced in Winnipeg on Wednesday, it looks like an uphill climb to win one of the last two spots on the back end. Michael Stone is still here on a PTO, Connor Mackey has looked promising, and Nicolas Meloche is also fighting for one of two spots while we wait for Oliver Kylington to return.
If the Flames want to send Valimaki to the AHL Wranglers, he’d have to clear waivers. And there’s a decent chance the former first-rounder would be scooped up by another squad. So unless he sticks for the start of the season, change is coming one way or another.
“I think the mental side of it is 1,000 times harder to be completely honest with you. If you don’t have confidence, get in your head, you’re overthinking, it’s very hard to play,” Valimaki told me in the Saddledome halls last week. “And I feel good with that now. That’s always been a strength of mine, growing up and being younger.
“With all those tough times with injury, up and down and COVID and everything. It was just hard to deal with all of it sometimes. And I kind of lost confidence and started overthinking. I feel really good now, and that’s how I want to feel.”
The 2017 first-round pick was a top prospect in 2018. He played 24 games with the NHL squad (one goal, two assists in 24 games) and a dominant 20 contests with the Stockton Heat (four goals, 10 assists in 20 contests).
He was a comeback story in 2020-21, scoring a point per game in the SM-Liiga in Finland and then a pair of goals and 11 points in 49 games with the Flames after losing an entire season to a torn ACL suffered during summer training.
Since Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter returned, Valimaki has been everything from NHL trade fodder to AHLer
Right now, he’s in a holding pattern.
But none of that matters to Valimaki, who did everything he could this summer to prepare for the most important preseason of his career.
“The best thing you can do is just value your game and how you feel and not worry about anything else, not worry about how someone else is playing or how many guys do we have. Things will work out. Just do your best every day, which I think I’ve done overall,” said Valimaki, who returned to North America a couple of weeks earlier to get extra skating and training in.
“I haven’t felt this good physically and mentally in a long time in terms of conditioning, confidence and just being able to be me and just play hockey.”
We’ll find out soon where that will happen.