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NHL Draft

2017 Draft: Juuso Valimaki thriving in North America

Family support providing boost to Tri-City defenseman since relocating from Finland at age 17

by Aaron Vickers / Correspondent

Every Thursday, will look ahead to the 2017 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.

Hockey always has been a family affair for Juuso Valimaki. 

Even from afar.

Valimaki left Finland last season when he was 17 to join Tri-City of the Western Hockey League with the hope that it would help him better chase his NHL dream. He reached the decision with the help of those closest to him.

"My family has always been so supportive of my hockey," said Valimaki, now 18. "That decision last year … moving away from home was tough. I talked a lot with my family and we thought it was the best place for me to become a better player and a better person here in the United States and the Western Hockey League. I wanted to get lots of games and lots of ice time and learn how to play North American hockey here.

"My goal is to play in the NHL, so this is closer to the NHL. We just thought it was the best place for me."

It's turned out to be the right decision for Valimaki (6-foot-1, 204 pounds) who is third among WHL defensemen with 12 goals and 35 points. He earned an A rating from NHL Central Scouting on its players to watch list for the 2017 NHL Draft.

Helping in his success this season has been his family; his mother, Mia, and two brothers moved to Kennewick, Washington in August, and Juuso lives with them along with teammate Michael Rasmussen, a center who also earned an A rating from Central Scouting.

"We knew we were going to have different billets," Valimaki said. "Me and Michael wanted to live together. We didn't know where we were going to go and what was going to happen.

"Then my mom had an idea and she saw the opportunity there to move. I think it's been really good for us. I think it's been good for [his brothers] too, to see another country, another culture. My brothers are both in school and playing here too. I think it's been a really good experience for them too."

Mia and Juuso's younger brothers Niko, age 14, and Rasmus, 6, have had the opportunity to watch Valimaki continue to build on a solid first season in Tri-City, when he had seven goals and 32 points in 56 games, and helped Finland to a gold medal as captain at the 2016 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.

"I think his offensive game has really come along this year," said John Williams of NHL Central Scouting. "He's got a fair number of goals and he's pushing the game offensively more than he did last year. Last year he was good offensively … he moved the puck but he got hurt and missed a lot of time. He was feeling his way more last year.

"This year he's been more assertive and he's trying to dictate the game more."

Valimaki said he believes a strong offseason training plan helped him step up his game this season.

"I think I had a good summer," Valimaki said. "I got stronger and faster this summer. I worked a lot and tried to get better physically. I tried to be ready for this season here. My teammates have helped me a lot here this year. I just think knowing the league and how to play and the travel. The second year is easier when you know all of this.

"I think all that stuff combined has helped a lot."

Valimaki said he knows he still has a long way to go between now and when he could hear his name called in the first round pick of the 2017 draft in Chicago on June 23.

But the pressure isn't there, thanks in part to his roommate.

"It's great to have Michael living with me," Valimaki said. "He's a really close friend of mine. It's nice to have him to go through this draft process. We both think the same about this. He's not putting too much pressure on this either.

"Somehow it feels like it's a special year, but at the same time it's still just one season. You can't put too much pressure on the year and thinking it's really special and you have to succeed. It's both.

"It's just a year you have to work and have fun."

Valimaki is, along with Rasmussen and a household full of support.

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