Of the long list of intriguing defencemen that could be available at the 17th overall selection, Juuso Valimaki has one of the most impressive resumes.
As a 16-year-old playing in Finland’s under-18 Jr.B league, he tallied 33 points in 44 games and drew attention as a potential top prospect for the 2017 draft. Since crossing over to North America in 2015 as the 14th overall selection in the import draft, Valimaki has developed into the Tri-City Americans’ top all-situations rearguard and has become a dominant WHL defenceman.
In terms of offensive production, Valimaki produced one of the best seasons of any draft-eligible player in 2016-17 with 61 points in 60 games (19g, 42a), including 14 even-strength goals. Among first-year eligible CHL defencemen in the 2017 draft class, he’s the only one to finish over a point-per-game. On the list of CHL defencemen selected in the first rounds of the 2015 and 2016 drafts (a list that includes Ivan Provorov, Olli Juolevi, Mikhail Sergachev, Jakob Chychrun and Thomas Chabot), only Provorov achieved that feat.
As an 18-year-old at the World Junior Championships this past winter, he scored two goals in six games while playing behind a pair of older NHL-drafted Finnish defencemen in Vili Saarijärvi and Olli Juolevi.
Most scouts refer to Valimaki, a 6’0, 200-pound left-handed shot, as a well-rounded player with a high intelligence level. Skating wise, he has great power in his stride and beats many junior-level players with ease. While not incredibly agile, he’s a pretty effortless skater who can rely on his strong technique.
Offensively, he mostly stays away from the big load ups from the point, more often than not opting for an efficient approach focused on getting shots through to the net. He’s been praised for his puck distribution skills as well, and quarterbacked the top power play unit in Tri-City this year.
Valimaki’s scouting report from Future Considerations:
“A strong, minute-munching, two-way, dependable blueliner…not a lot of high-end offensive flash or dash to his game, but just makes the right play consistently…good vision and puck moving ability, has no panic to his game and waits for his options…can sling the puck around with strong accurate passes…his hockey sense allows him to read and react to the play well in advance…very committed to blocking shots…big, rangy and covers a lot of ice, but his pivots and transitions are a little bit choppy…solid lateral mobility, especially carrying the puck and keeping it out of range of the opposition…plays with a good mix of aggression and poise, stepping into lanes to take the puck away from the opposition…just a good, poised, smart player who is not flashy, but consistently makes the right play and helps his team win games”
I spoke with Tri-City Americans head coach Mike Williamson about the specifics of Valimaki’s skill set and role on the team, as well as his success in North America to date.
Interview: Mike Williamson on Juuso Valimaki
It seems like a lot of scouts think Juuso has a well-rounded set of tools, but he doesn’t necessarily excel in one particular area. Do you think that’s more of a narrative than anything?
Williamson: I think he’s a very, very well rounded player. One of Jusso’s strengths is his versatility. I think he can continue to develop into a strong 200-foot player that can create offense but is extremely responsible as well.
You certainly used him a lot 5-on-5 as well as on the power play. He seems to go about his business offensively with a lot of efficiency rather than flashiness. He jumps into the attack a lot, picks his spots at the right times, and distributes the puck well – is that a fair assessment of his offensive game?
Williamson: Yeah. We really pushed him to jump into the play more and create in order to help us more offensively. He’s got a good instinct on jumping into the play; he’s quick to get ahead of players in the neutral zone and makes extremely good decisions. He’s extremely good on the offensive blueline at recognizing opportunities to get pucks towards the net and create chances that way.
One of the things you’ll hear from coaches a lot is that, while there is a lot of puck rushing from defencemen in the lower leagues, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the pro level. Do you think that’s a problem for Jusso or is he capable of adjusting?
Williamson: Well, I think Jusso will continue to adapt depending on the style of play that is available and required. A lot of his offence wasn’t necessarily created by jumping with the puck – he was very good at jumping into holes and being an extra option on the attack; that fourth layer or option on the offensive attack. He’ll adapt to any situation. He’s extremely coachable and very intelligent and whatever is required, whatever’s being asked of him, he’ll be able to do.
Speaking of adjusting, how do you think he coped when he came over to North America in 2015 and what did your scouts think of him before he joined the team?
Williamson: We had good reports on him, but you never know until they actually get on the ice with you. Right away, it was easy to see he had a good character and a good work ethic. He was extremely detailed with his habits on the ice and his English was pretty good — and that’s always helps to transition — but he adapted really well and fit in with the players. He’s very humble; just came to work and went about his business and continues to do that. In his second year, we saw him being a lot more comfortable adding more leadership, being more vocal – that’s been a big part of his strengths as well.
Do you think he learned a bit from Wotherspoon and some of the other experienced defencemen on the team?
Williamson: I think Jusso’s a student of the game, so he’s always taking things in whether it’s someone like Parker Wotherspoon, who’s had success and was at our level for a number of years, or the opposition defence. He’s constantly trying to get better, to get an edge. He’s the type of player that doesn’t take a day off. He gets better everyday. He would watch NHL games, watch different players, and was always looking for ways to get better.
He certainly produced really well at 5-on-5, finishing with 14 even-strength goals and 20 even-strength assists (in 60 games). Would you call him a dominant 5-on-5 player at this point?
Williamson: At this level, yes. He’s a guy that other teams would want to be aware of and would talk about. We gave him and Wotherspoon a lot more license this year; we wanted them to create and be offensive threats for us. They were able to play with a bit more risk-reward in their game. Jusso really thrives on that and was able to identify opportunities to do that.
Switching over to the defensive side – when evaluating someone defensively from a hockey sense perspective, it’s about watching them over and over again to get a sense of the frequency at which they make the right play. For someone that’s with him everyday, how do you rate his decision making in his own end?
Williamson: I think he’s a very intelligent player. He’s strong, though his defensive play might have been stronger in his first year. A lot of that’s because of the offence that we wanted him to create this year. I think he has that mindset and took some calculated risks, sometimes leaning on offence a little bit, which can hurt your defensive game a bit. He’s got a very good stick and he’s very aware of people around him. So, again, the biggest thing is, whatever you need Jusso to do — whether it’s at this level or going forwards — he’s going to be able to do. He’s coachable, he’s smart. He knows the value of keeping the puck out of his net and getting one at the other end. He’s very cautious that he can’t just be a one-dimensional player, so he’s going to continue to work on all parts of his game.
Is it possible that his struggles defensively this year had something to do with tougher matchups?
Williamson: I don’t know if it was about matchups; he was going to be on the ice against top players no matter what, and he was his first year as well. He played a tonne. He loved tough minutes and sometimes when you get tired, it gets harder to do the little things. We were happy with his overall play at both ends. We just freed him up offensively and that had an effect in that it caught him up ice a little bit, but his overall game is strong in all three zones.
You mentioned his play at the opposing blueline. Could you go into more detail about that?
Williamson: He’s really good at getting the puck and walking the line to change the shooting angle. He’s extremely quick and efficient as far as getting pucks to the net, knowing when he has time to really load up a shot and pound it or, you know, just a quick wrist shot before something closes off or before a player in front of the net is covered. He got a lot of points that way. He’s really good at having a good feel. A lot of players wait a second too long or make decisions to make a big windup and someone gets in the lane, especially with how players are blocking shots these days. He’s just got a good sense of how to get the puck into scoring areas.
Definitely not a huge slapshot in his game, but we don’t see it as much anymore in the pro game other than one timers, with the emphasis on shot blocking and the role of wingers defensively now that makes getting pucks through so important.
Williamson: Yeah, he does have a good shot and he can definitely unload. He takes the option of not shooting as hard so he has an opportunity to get it through.
What kind of role did he play on the power play this year?
Williamson: He was one of our quarterbacks on the power play, so he played the top. He was responsible for trying to spread the other team out, getting into the middle and using his shot or distributing the puck. That was primarily his role.
At 6’2, 200+ pounds, he certainly has some size to him as well. Do you think he could benefit from using it a bit more?
Williamson: Jusso’s not an overly physical player, and I don’t think he needs to be. He’s someone that’s going to rely on his positioning and his stick to break up plays. He’s strong enough to bump people off the puck and win those matchups that way, but his going to win more battles with his positioning and his stick.
Talking about skating specifically, I think we’ve covered that he’s strong in that area. What do you think is his strong suit there?
Williamson: He’s a very powerful skater. Transitioning, he can get going up the ice pretty quick. He’ll bypass a lot of players and lose coverage. Very, very strong and powerful lower body and a powerful stride.
He had just the one assist in four playoff games. What was your evaluation of his playoff performance? Did his game change at all?
Williamson: I don’t think his game changes. We asked a lot of him. He wanted to do well, so he pressed a little bit. He’s a kid that cares and wants to perform at a high level. I thought he demonstrated an increase in leadership during the year. He was even more vocal and really showed that he cared.