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'SKY'S THE LIMIT'

Valimaki - along with Dube - will start season with the big club

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

Juuso Valimaki is in this for a job, not an autograph.

Hobnobbing with A-listers and rubbing shoulders with household names, the stardust and sequins part of the gig, doesn't register on his radar.

Well, for the most part, anyway.

Every 19-year-old should be owed one - if only one - quintessentially teenage moment.

"In San Jose, on a PK," Valimaki was confessing Monday. "I think (Erik) Karlsson was on the ice already a minute. I skated into the corner with him.

"I honestly beat him to the puck. Lifted his stick, got the puck and got it out.

"That was pretty cool."

Cool. That's a word to describe Valimaki.

Not chirpy.

Not cocky.

Just … cool. A knowing cool. An understanding cool. An understated cool. A beyond-his-years cool.

"Doesn't matter who he's out there against," lauded captain Mark Giordano, "he's not intimidated. And that's not an easy thing to do at his age, believe me.

"As a young guy, it's easy to find yourself staring. Around your own teammates you're shy. Then you get on the ice, playing against guys you've watched your whole life, and it's a whole different world. Or seems that way.

"(At 19) I definitely didn't have that kind of poise. I was still playing junior. Might've been my first year in the O. So to see him play the way he has is pretty impressive.

"We played against a pretty good lineup in San Jose the other night and Vali made some plays under pressure that not many guys can make, no matter how many games you've played in the league."

At the Flames' first post-exhibition schedule practice at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Monday, both Valimaki and Cochrane's own Dillon Dube were still around - Valimaki partnered on a third pairing alongside Michael Stone, Dube joining James Neal and Derek Ryan on a line that featured in the team's final two pre-season jousts.

Coach Bill Peters confirmed both kids would start the season with the big club, quite likely in the lineup for Wednesday's curtain-raiser at Vancouver.

Video: "Those two have made our team"

"Obviously, it's exciting,'' said Valimaki. "I've got a lot of people to call back home. Important people in my life. My family. My girlfriend. My trainer. A lot of friends, too. They're all really happy for me.

"I feel really good. There've been a lot of games but as a player you like that.

"I think I've gotten better and better every day. After the guys came back (from China), the pace in the games got up. I've just felt better and better every day.

"The biggest focus for me has obviously been the defensive side. The coaches always told me stay up, stay up. Have good gaps. I think that was the biggest weakness for me a couple years ago - gaps. Now it seems I can do it pretty well.

"When you see you can be up here and play against these guys, it makes you happy."

Count goaltender Mike Smith among those saying after Monday's news: Congratulations and well deserved.

"He hasn't tried to do too much," critiques Smith. "Hasn't been flashy. I don't know him well enough yet to know if that's a part of his game or not.

"He's just been really solid. Controlled. Poised. There've been moments in games when you're like: 'Wow! This kid has it. He gets it.'

"And a lot of guys just … don't.

"There's no panic. He's improved every game I've seen him play this pre-season.

"If he keeps improving at the pace we've seen, he's going to be one heckuva defenceman. It's not the easiest position to break in at.

"But he's done everything possible to be on this team and deserves to be where he's at.

"The sky's the limit for this kid."

That sky has always been where Valimaki has aimed.

"You're kind of born with it,'' he replies, asked about his unflappable on-ice demeanor. "I've never thought about it or practiced it or even considered it.

"I've just had it.

"Lucky that way, I guess.

"I like to play with the puck with the puck, make plays. To do that, I guess you need to be calm. It's been my biggest strength basically my whole career."

A career that will in all likelihood officially leave the launch pad at Rogers Arena, to last, oh, at least the next decade and a half or so.

"I remember Darryl (Sutter) always used to say it takes 300 games for defencemen to get their feet under them,'' muses Giordano, set to chalk up regular-season game No. 756 Wednesday. "As I got older I started understanding what he meant.

"But you see the some of these kids today, how polished they are at such a young age …

"Vali's got a ton of skill and the right attitude. Definitely trending to be a top D-man in the future."
 

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