For most players, the carrot at the end of a lengthy rehab process is a healthy return to the lineup.
However, as part of Juuso Valimaki’s long, winding road back to the NHL, the Calgary Flames‘ prized defensive prospect helped motivate himself with even higher aspirations: a Calder Trophy.
“It’s not something I’m focused on but, big picture, I know it’s a possibility,” said the 22-year-old defenceman in his first interview since returning to Calgary on the weekend.
“It’s something we’ve talked about through the rehab process, that, ‘we’ll get through this and then go win that.’ Call it a goal for this season. The first thing is just to be in the lineup and that’s the only thing I can ask for. After that, it’s up to me to play and perform and help the team and start to be more of an impact player — a top-four defenceman like I was in Finland and junior and Stockton. Nobody else is going to put bigger expectations on me than myself. I feel good and know what I’m capable of.”
The main goal is staying healthy, something the Finnish phenom hasn’t been able to do since the Flames selected him 16th overall in 2017. A high ankle sprain limited him to 24 NHL games in 2018-19, followed by a knee injury while training that summer, requiring significant surgery that cost him all of last season — a year in which he originally expected he’d solidify himself as an NHL regular.
Instead, the campaign opened with him on crutches, part of an emotional 20-month hiatus from the league he is confident he can star in.
“I remember those first weeks, maybe a month, I couldn’t watch,” said the former Tri-City Americans star of his Flames teammates. “I tried to, but I remember walking into the rink the first couple times when the guys were on the ice in warmups and I just hid in my toque and went into the room and started crying. I didn’t think it was going to be that hard.”
His hopes of being healthy enough to re-join the team late in the season were dashed by the COVID-19 pause and the fact the Flames had loaded up with defensive depth at the trade deadline.
Despite being given medical clearance for the summer re-start camp, he was a mere spectator for the playoff tourney in Edmonton. He knew such a decision was possible given he’d missed the regular season and would have to be protected in next summer’s expansion draft if he played a single game.
It was yet another in a series of setbacks that made his triumphant return to game action two months ago so rewarding.
Loaned to hometown Ilves Tampere in the Finnish Liiga for the first 19 games of the season, Valimaki’s 19 points earned him the team’s Golden Helmet as leading scorer for a spell. Playing well over 20 minutes a game, he ignited his rebirth with a confidence-building stint that has him buzzing for a chance to prove he may just be the NHL’s top rookie.
Eligible for the award by virtue of having played less than 26 NHL games, he’ll be in tough both because he’s a defenceman and because he’s up against a strong field of competitors including top pick Alexis Lafreniere.
“It has kind of been one negative thing after another negative thing — at times it felt like, ‘this is never going to end,’” said the six-foot-two, 219-pound rearguard, whose last NHL game was April 19, 2019.
“It has been a long time. Now it feels better to have played some games and be back here and there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel with the negotiations between the league and the players sounding good. The biggest thing all along was my love for the game and knowing that, in time, I will be okay. I got a little taste of the NHL and knowing that’s going to be the life. That was the biggest motivation, believing my time would come.”
The Flames depth chart has the left-handed Finn slotted to start the season on the third pairing, behind Mark Giordano, Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev. His tandem-mate will likely be one of Nikita Nesterov, (still unsigned) Oliver Kylington or college signing Connor Mackey.
Given the club’s shortage of right-shot defenders, Valimaki swapped sides regularly with his Finnish defensive partner after discussing the possibility with Flames GM Brad Treliving.
“I’m all good with it if that’s what it comes down to, I’ve got no problem playing either side,” said Valimaki, who has been isolating in Calgary since his return Saturday, with hopes to join the team’s informal skates at the Dome this weekend.
“My confidence is high and I’ll be ready to make an impact. Playing back home was perfect for the time being. Obviously, I haven’t played for so long, so I think it was important for me to get those games in. I’m definitely more ready and I feel good about my game. What I noticed when I was playing over there was that every day was just joy and happy face and smiling. To get to play NHL games again is what I’ve been looking forward to — it has been close to two years since I’ve played. There’s a lot of excitement and a fire inside of me I’m ready to let out. I’m praying to stay healthy this year and I’ll be the happiest guy. I’m sure I can help the team with that energy too.”