After being selected midway through the first round of last summer’s entry draft, no one expected Juuso Valimaki to be a member of the Calgary Flames this season.
The competition was just too stiff on a veteran-laden blue line.
However, there he was at the Saddledome last week. For the wrong reasons.
A solid start to the season in Tri-City was recently interrupted by a knee injury that prompted the Flames to fly him into Calgary for a looksee at the sturdy defenceman’s ailment.
Days later he started skating again and, after a week, was sent back to his Western Hockey League club where the 19-year-old is expected to resume his season this week.
As we take a closer look at the Flames’ five 2017 draft picks, three are expected to play in the world junior championship in Buffalo, including Valimaki who has already been named captain of Team Finland.
2017 DRAFT PICKS
Juuso Valimaki, 19, D
Drafted: First round, 16th overall, 2017
Season to date: 16 GP, 5 G, 12 A, 17 PTS, +5
Reason for optimism: The Finnish defenceman opened the season averaging a point a game, as he did last year in Tri-City when scouts were drooling over his size (six foot two, 204 pounds) and smarts.
Unfortunately, the injury put his season on hold.
A strong, steady defender who can play both ends of the ice, his camp with the Calgary Flames demonstrated he will undoubtedly be a top-four blueliner in the NHL.
There was no room with the big club for him to make a push this year, but he might make it harder for management to send him back down again next year.
“It took maybe a little bit of time to get used to playing in juniors again after these pre-season (NHL) games here, but I think I’ve been focusing a little bit more on my defensive side and my skating and being strong, kind of focusing on the things that I need to work on to get here,” said Valimaki while in Calgary for evaluation by Flames doctors.
“It is really helpful that I had the time here and I got to play some games and got to be here quite a long time. It definitely helps. I think I’m going the right direction. Obviously, we have a really good team down there and we’ve started to play good hockey too now. So just keep rolling as a team and keep getting better individually.”
Adam Ruzicka, 18, C
Drafted: Fourth round, 109th overall, 2017
Season to date: 29 GP, 17 G, 18 A, 35 PTS, +4
Ruzicka opened the season dominating with the Sarnia Sting, at one point sitting as high as third in OHL scoring. He has slowed down considerably the last month and is third in team scoring, despite leading the squad with 122 shots for an average of more than four a game.
A big, solid prospect, the Slovak native dropped off in the draft due to his compete-level, which still appears to be a work in progress.
Described by some as a Micheal Ferland-type player who is hard to knock off the puck, Ruzicka is a cinch to represent Slovakia at the world juniors once again.
Zack Fischer, 20, RW
Drafted: Fifth round, 140th overall, 2017
Season to date: 17 GP, 10 G, 7 A, 17 PTS, +8
The hard-nosed 20-year-old seems to be back on track after an early-season decision to leave Medicine Hat unceremoniously, just three games into his fourth season with the Tigers.
It prompted a trade to Spokane where he’s returned to the point-a-game form he had last year when he scored 34 goals and attracted the Flames’ attention with his grit and scoring prowess.
The six-foot-two, 207-pound wrecking ball has 43 penalty minutes, putting him on pace to eclipse the 145 he accrued last year.
D’Artagnan Joly, 18, RW
Drafted: Sixth round, 171st overall, 2017
Season to date: 19 GP, 9 G, 10 A, 19 PTS, -5
The fourth-leading scorer on a very average Baie-Comeau Drakkar squad (QMJHL), Joly continues to slowly improve upon a draft selection that had Flames scouts unsure of his talents the first half of last season.
Injuries haven’t helped. As he did the latter half of 2016-17, he has continued to improve, but isn’t on anyone’s radar for a sniff at the Canadian world junior team roster.
Filip Sveningsson, 18, LW
Drafted: Seventh round, 202nd overall, 2017
Season to date: 15 GP, 8 G, 12 A, 20 PTS, +4
The six-foot, 200-pound forward models his game after fellow Swede Peter Forsberg, and is doing it rather well on the offensive side of the rink.
Although sidelined earlier this year by a shoulder injury, Sveningsson was called up by the senior affiliate of the HV71 J20 Super Elite team where he was scoreless in six games.
Still, he’s certainly on Sweden’s radar in terms of a possible spot on the world junior squad.