Juuso Valimaki has always taken things one step at a time. Now, he’s eagerly awaiting what he hopes is a big step towards fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in at 200 pounds, the 18-year-old product of Nokia, Finland, and defenceman with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans is ranked 11th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, leaving him a prime candidate to hear his name called in the first round when the 2017 NHL Draft gets underway from Chicago on June 23.
“Obviously, it has been my goal for many years now and now I’m really close to achieving that goal,” Valimaki said over the phone from his native Finland.
“I’m really looking forward to [the draft]. It gives me a good feeling that I’m doing the right things and my hard work is paying off… I’m really excited, but at the same time, it is just one step. Then I’ll step to the next level and try to do everything I can once again.”
Describing himself as a hard-working, offensive defenceman with a high hockey IQ and compete level, there’s a lot about Valimaki for NHL clubs to like and it was on full display during the 2016-17 WHL season.
During his second year in North America and second campaign with the Americans, Valimaki took flight, making the most of his NHL Draft tour. After being selected 14th overall at the 2015 CHL Import Draft and having posted very respectable rookie totals with 32 points (7G-25A) in 56 games during the 2015-16 season, the well-spoken Finn exploded for 61 points (19G-42A) in 60 games this past campaign. His 61 points were good enough for second in scoring among defencemen on the Americans, trailing only 19-year-old veteran Parker Wotherspoon (NYI, 4 – 112, 2015).
Valimaki’s rise coincided with that of his club. The Americans went from finishing fifth in the U.S. Division with a record of 35-34-2-1 in 2015-16 to finishing third in the U.S. Division with a record of 41-28-3-0 in 2016-17.
“Going through my second year, I knew my teammates, I knew the coaching staff, I knew the schedule and how everything works,” Valimaki said. “I think I improved as a player in my first year and I had a good off-season. It was easier to go through my second year, be a year older and more experienced.
“Our team played much better as well, so it was easier for me to play better individually. My teammates helped me a lot. I’ve always had really high expectations for myself, so I wanted to have a great season. I was expecting it… Overall, I was happy with how I played and how we played as a team in the regular season.”
Unfortunately for Valimaki and the Americans, they ran into a red-hot Seattle Thunderbirds squad in the first round of the 2017 WHL Playoffs and were ousted earlier than they hoped for, albeit to the eventual Ed Chynoweth Cup champions.
Sandwiched in the middle of a successful sophomore campaign, Valimaki participated in the 2017 Sherwin-Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game and suited up for Finland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship – his second opportunity to represent his home nation after having previously taken to the ice for the 2015 IIHF World U18 Championship and 2016 IIHF World U18 Championship, winning silver and gold, respectively.
After two successful prior stints on international ice, Valimaki and his countrymen were left on the outside looking in at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, struggling to a ninth-place finish and narrowly avoiding relegation – a shocking result for an age group that had played so well in previous events.
“It’s always a big honour to play for my country and especially at the World Juniors – it’s a huge tournament,” Valimaki said. “You’re playing against the best juniors in the world. It’s tough.
“It’s always a good experience to play against the best players. It’s always a big honour to play for Team Finland. The tournament itself, it didn’t really go the way we wanted, but it was a great experience. You always learn some little things from those tournaments.”
Valimaki registered a pair of goals over six games at the tournament, doing everything in his power to serve as a catalyst.
Having put that, along with an early exit from the 2017 WHL Playoffs behind him, Valimaki’s focus has shifted to the 2017 NHL Draft with his most recent exposure coming at the 2017 NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo. Working his way through fitness testing and meetings, Valimaki came out shining with three top-five finishes – third in the pro-agility test, fourth in the wingate peak power test and fourth in the aerobic fitness test. Pleased with his performance and overall experience at the scouting combine, Valimaki knows he has done everything in his power to set himself up well ahead of June 23.
Scheduled to travel to Chicago a few days ahead of the big night, Valimaki is taking family along with him to share in the experience. After that, all the big Finn can do is hope for the best.
“In the big picture, it doesn’t really matter if I get drafted fourth overall, 14th overall or 24th overall,” Valimaki said. “It doesn’t change the fact that the work is ahead of me.
“I need to work even harder and make sure I do everything I can every day to chase my dream and my goal to play and have a great NHL career.”
Juuso Valimaki – Defenceman
Weight: 200 pounds
Hometown: Nokia, Finland
Acquired: Round 1, 14th overall – 2015 CHL Import Draft
2015-16: 56 GP, 7G-25A – 32 points
2016-17: 60 GP, 19G-42A – 61 points
2017: 4 GP, 0G-1A – 1 point
The 2017 NHL Draft takes place June 23 to 24 in Chicago, Illinois, with coverage provided by Sportsnet beginning at 4:30 p.m. MT on Friday, June 23.