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Flames' first-round pick Juuso Valimaki continues to develop at a rapid pace, with his sights set on Memorial Cup

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

A series sweep to open the post-season account. A burgeoning belief in their possibilities. 

Centres Morgan Geekie and Michael Rasmussen sitting 2-3 on the Western Hockey League playoff scoring chart.

The making-a-statement-of-intentions addition of world junior gold-medalist Jake Bean from the Calgary Hitmen to an already formidable back end.

Not to mention a certain on-the-verge-of-primetime Finnish defenceman the Flames are keeping a watchful eye on.

Yes, things are shaping up quite nicely, thank you, in Kennewick, Wash., as the Tri-City Americans ready to shift into the second phase of the WHL playoffs.

"We're just starting to realize what we're capable of,'' says Juuso Valimaki, post-practice on Saturday.

"It's starting to get into the back of our heads a little bit that we can do special things here.

"We'd been playing really good hockey before the playoffs, through the last six, seven regular-season games. So we had a positive feeling going in.

"That feeling is growing.

"Obviously, winning the first series the way we did is going to give us a lot of belief in ourselves going into the second round.

"We just want to roll with it."

Valimaki and his teammmates stunned the B.C. Division champion Kelowna Rockets in Round 1, running out 5-0 winners in the opener in hostile territory, stealing Game 2 by a pinball-wizard tally of 9-7 before netting a pair of 5-3 decisions at the Toyota Centre for a sweep.

The Rockets had been surging, on a 5-0-1-0 run heading into the playoffs.

Next up for Tri-City, either the Vancouver Giants or Victoria Royals, starting Friday.

After helping sink the hopes of one fellow Flames' prospect, Dillon Dube, Valimaki may find himself conscripted to tether another, Victoria's Matthew Phillips.

"Yeah,'' he muses. "That'd be fun."

With trade winds amped up to tempest level all day, Flames GM Brad Treliving held tight to his first-round pick to choose Valimaki 16th overall at the 2017 NHL draft in Chicago last summer.

Their belief in the choice has only deepened since.

"We've seen a lot of the same from Juuso since he got here,'' says Americans' coach Mike Williamson, for five years, of course, in charge of the Hitmen. "He continues to develop but when he arrived as a very young person he was already mature, both as a player and as a person. So the progression isn't in any way surprising.

"Very motivated.

"Very focused.

"Very confident, but humble at the same time.

"He's a natural leader. He's vocal. Quite often when you get an import player, they kinda sit in the shadows. Whistle-to-whistle they're helping you win but they're not the guys standing up to say something when it needs saying.

"Juuso's the opposite.

"He's been a captain basically his whole life and he's someone we really rely on."

After an impressive turn at his first pro camp with Calgary in September, nagging injuries limited the rangy Valimaki to 43 games (45 points, including 14 goals, and a +15) for Tri-City this campaign.

The relative lack of wear-and-tear may actually be of benefit now, however.

"He was frustrated, for sure,'' acknowledges Williamson. "This is a kid who does play through stuff. He's not a soft player who needs to feel 100 percent. He's more than willing to play with bumps and bruises and bangs.

"So it was hard on Juuso. It was hard on us, too. As a team, we missed him and no doubt we felt that a little bit in the standings.

"Once he got through the world juniors he got the rest and rehab that he needed, though. He feels good now, at an important time of year. And it shows.

"In retrospect, it's probably going to benefit him and us in the end. As I said, it hurt us in the standings and was tough at the time but he's probably fresher now, at playoff time, as a result.

"That's big because things just get harder and harder at this time of year."

The kid is more than up to the task.

"It's certainly not ideal, missing games, doing re-hab,'' Valimaki chimes in. "Obviously I got a few games in at the world junior, some travel, but I played a lot fewer games than most of the guys.

"That's never easy. You want to be out there, helping.

"But the best games, the important ones - the fun ones - are ahead. And I'm feeling really good right now."

Valimaki has embraced the added responsibility as his junior career has unfolded.

"It's just been a progression, more and more becoming The Guy,'' says Williamson. "When he joined us, we knew we were getting a solid two-way defenceman with an offensive upside and the ability to jump into the play.

"But we had some other guys, (Brandon) Carlo and (Parker) Wotherspoon, so we didn't have to rely on him as much. Even this year, we have a deep defence with Bean and Dylan Coghlan. 

When asked for an identifiable comparable to his cornerstone D-man, Williamson hedges.

"I always struggle with that a little bit. But I will say his first two or three strides up the ice as a good as anyone I've coached.

"Just very explosive, very dynamic. When he does join the rush he's still capable of being the first guy back. Extremely good speed and instinct. And can log a lot of minutes. We always talk about him having pro habits, the way he eats, sleeps and rests. He knows his body and he has a lot of respect for it, which is rare for guys this age.

"They hear it and you tell 'em and until they make that next step very few of them do what they have to off the ice in terms of things like nutrition.

"Juuso has that already."

The immediate goal, of course, is moving purposefully along the trail to Regina, to May 18-27 and junior hockey's showcase event.

"The Memorial Cup?'' parries Valimaki. "That's a long way off. I guess you think about it every once in a while but the focus is on what's next.

"But of course I'd love to play in a Memorial Cup. We all would. That's the goal."

Valimaki has every intention of making this Mem Cup bid his last. Calgary, the Scotiabank Saddledome, is the destination of choice this fall.

"The experience there, playing a couple pre-season games, being around the guys and seeing the pace, being part of it, can only help me,'' he reckons. "Even a month or so. I know now what kind of game I need to play. I have a really good trainer back home, I really trust him, and I have a lot of motivation for this summer."

His coach believes the 19-year-old is nearly polished to an NHL-calibre sheen right now.

"I think he's close,'' reckons Williamson. "Really close.

"It's an adjustment for any young player, naturally, but I do think he's capable of making that step.

"There are things he needs to clean up. With his speed, here he's able to get caught out of position a little and still not get burned.

"In the NHL, you're punished for that. If you, say, lose position off the wall it's harder to regain what you've lost. But he's so smart, he can adapt, and I don't think that'll take long.

"I think he'll make it awful tough (on the Flames) to not play him up there next year.

"In saying that, NHL teams want to make sure they don't rush guys, don't throw them into the deep end too early. Which is smart.

"But I'm pretty confident Juuso will make a pretty good case for himself for being at that level, and very soon."

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