TEMPE, Az. – The massive smile on Juuso Valimaki’s face was unlike anything he wore around the Saddledome the last couple of years.
The Coyotes defenceman had just set up the overtime winner against the Calgary club that gave up on him, prompting him to punctuate a raucous celebration at Mullett Arena with a series of exuberant punches to the glass.
Who knows if he was picturing a certain someone on the other end of his jabs, but suffice it to say, this was an evening that meant a little more than all the others he’s had in the desert.
“Yeah, I mean, there’s a little extra boost for sure,” smiled the Flames’ 16th pick overall in 2017, whose time in Calgary came to a close Oct. 9 when the 24-year Finnish defenceman was claimed off waivers by Arizona.
“Honestly, I’m happy this is the last game against them this year, so now I can forget about it.
“Now it’s not like, ‘I came from Calgary this year.’ Next year will be a new year and I won’t have to worry about coming from there anymore.
“I’m a Coyote and I’ve been here awhile.
“It takes the thinking about it too much away.”
Valimaki had plenty of time to ponder in Calgary, where the arrival of Darryl Sutter put an abrupt end to his hopes of being an everyday NHLer.
The coach deemed the first rounder too slow and lumped him in as one of the young players in the organization who was awarded NHL time before he’d earned it.
And so, he sat.
After playing just nine games with the Flames last season, the club’s effort to send him down to the minors this fall was stymied by a rebuilding Coyotes club more than happy to give him a second chance.
It couldn’t possibly have worked out any better.
“No, it couldn’t,” he smiled, as teammates walked by in a dressing room far more jubilant than the Flames’ has been all year.
“To be completely honest with you, sometimes I sit at home and say, ‘how good is this? How lucky I am that it worked out this way?’
“In all fairness to whatever the past situation in Calgary was, I just don’t think it ever would have worked out.
“I needed to start fresh.
“In the end it wasn’t about anyone else, or anything someone did or didn’t do.
“I needed a fresh slate, new people around to start over again.”
He’s thankful to the coaches who’ve trusted him and helped him regain his form and confidence to the point he’s now running the top power play unit, killing penalties and playing over 20 minutes a night.
And he’s proud of his perseverance.
In Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime win, he played 24:33 and had his second straight two-assist night, which included a shot on Jacob Markstrom that left a rebound Travis Boyd banged in for the dramatic winner.
Heartbreak, once again, for the 10th-place Flames, who drop to 5-14 in extra time and lost ground on ninth-place Nashville, which sits one point up with three games in hand.
The eighth-place Jets are five up on the Flames.
Meanwhile, three Flames castoffs in the Coyotes dressing room relished their new good fortune and opportunity, including sudden first-liner Brett Ritchie and defenceman Connor Mackey, who played almost 20 minutes.
“If you told me a year ago if I was going to play 25 minutes in the NHL and I would feel good about my game, I don’t think I would have believed that,” said Valimaki, whose confidence eroded steadily in Calgary as his career was in limbo.
“I’d be lying if I said that I never had a day where I’m like, ‘am I ever going to play in the NHL again? Am I going to have a career like I imagined?
“The only way you get away from your own head is to focus on the day’s work and do as good as you can.
“Then you go to sleep and tell yourself, ‘I did everything I can today and eventually it’s going to work out.”
It’s working out now, both on the ice where he almost has 30 points, and away from it.
“Yesterday I went to the pool at 10 am and left at 5,” smiled Valimaki, who had plenty of fans in Calgary who will discuss, ‘the one that got away,’ for years.
“That’s one way to spend a day off.
“Twenty-five degrees and the sun shining. It’s an amazing place to live.”
“I’m not angry anymore.
“I’m not bitter towards anyone, or have bad blood for anyone over there – it didn’t work out.
As he said, he needed an opportunity to play and get his confidence back.
Tuesday’s win went a long way towards both.
“To be able to win and grind it out, those are the wins that feel the best, when it’s not easy and it’s a grind game.”
A battle he knows all about.