Kris Baker is once again counting down his list of top prospects available in the NHL Draft for Sabres.com. The first round of the 2017 NHL Draft will take place on June 23 in Chicago.
Team: Tri-City Americans (WHL)
The Finnish hockey program has taken their development structure to a new level in recent years. The rise of left-handed defenseman Juuso Valimaki, a true two-way producer with exceptional leadership skills, is just another example of their success.
Over the past two Western Hockey League seasons in Tri-City, Valimaki has proved himself as a poised puck distributor that can shut down the opposition's top line. He is defensively sound, exhibiting excellent gap control and good use of his stick. He rounds out the package with a nice physical dimension as he is not shy about using his body as well to disrupt the rush and cancel out his checks.
Valimaki shines when the action transitions out of the defensive zone. He is not an elite-level skater, but he is confident when moving the puck up ice, always keeping his head up prior to sending accurate passes in support of a fluid north-south game.
His vision is a strength, as is his ability to get low shots through from his point position. Naturally, Valimaki is a valuable weapon with the man advantage, but his strong defensive work makes him a penalty-killing asset as well.
In 60 games this past season, Valimaki pumped home 19 goals as part of a 61-point campaign. He also played for Finland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, scoring twice in the tournament's six games.
Valimaki already has NHL size, and his maturing two-way skill set isn't that far off, especially if he can continue to improve his four-way mobility. Another World Junior Championship and a deep playoff run in 2017-18 will only help what should be a quick ascendance to the NHL level for whichever team is lucky to select him.
For more on all the youngsters in the Sabres pipeline, check out Kris Baker's website, SabresProspects.com. You can also follow him on Twitter (@SabresProspects).
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