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Flames defenceman Juuso Valimaki shining in Finland’s Liiga


It’s a great sign, even though it’s a bad bucket.

Currently on loan to his hometown team in Finland’s Liiga, Calgary Flames blue-line blue-chipper Juuso Valimaki will hit the ice again Friday in a gold-coloured helmet.

That’s not some sort of zany fashion statement but instead a tradition in some European leagues to help fans — and foes — pick out the top point-producer for each team.

“Yeah, you don’t need a program to see who the leading scorer is,” deadpanned Flames general manager Brad Treliving.

With eight points — two goals and a half-dozen helpers — in seven outings so far on behalf of Tampereen Ilves, Valimaki isn’t just drawing the attention of opponents.

With or without that shiny lid, a lot of folks in Calgary are keenly tracking his progress.

Valimaki, remember, missed the entire 2019-20 campaign after tearing his ACL during a summer training session. He was with the boys in the bubble but didn’t draw into the lineup during the restart.

Now fully healthy and having collected dust for a long time, the Flames opted to loan the 22-year-old rearguard to Ilves until the action resumes in the NHL. Prior to his debut earlier this month in Finland’s top league, Valimaki had not skated in a game since April 19, 2019, an agonizing span of 532 days.

The Flames wouldn’t be fretting — far from it — if their prized defence prospect had zero for goals, zilch for assists and was a minus player in these rust-reducers. Thing is, Valimaki’s stats so far have been good as … gold. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Heading into a weekend back-to-back, he is currently riding a five-game point-spree.

Both of his goals have been beauties — a short-side roof-job and then Tuesday’s wicked rip as the trailer on an odd-man rush.

He’s not only pacing Ilves with eight points, he has done more offensive damage than any other defenceman on the 15-team circuit.

(There are not a lot of gents that produce at a point-per-game clip in the low-scoring Liiga. To put Valimaki’s output in perspective, Oilers work-in-progress winger Jesse Puljujarvi piled up 53 scoresheet mentions in 56 games last season and will be back in Edmonton for 2020-21.)

Valimaki also ranks among the current league leaders — and once again tops his team — in average ice time, logging 22:46 per night. He owns a plus-7 rating and has helped his squad to a 5-2 record.

“Yeah, you want him to do well, which he is. But the main thing for us is just get him up and get him playing some games,” Treliving stressed. “He hasn’t played in a long time, so we’re not breaking down the game-tape and getting too deep into it. It’s just let him get playing, let him touch the puck, let him get back into game situations, let him feel confident …

“So that’s it. He looks good on the ice, but you expect him to look good because he’s a good player.”

With no certainty about when the NHL — or the farm clubs in the American Hockey League — will drop the puck again, there are dozens of up-and-comers now on loan to teams across Europe.

Tampereen Ilves was a natural fit for Valimaki.

The rink is not even a 20-minute drive from his hometown of Nokia.

He’s a graduate of their junior program, so he’s already familiar with some of the staff and surroundings.

He’s able to spend the downtime at his own apartment, sleep in his own bed.

“A few years ago, I could never have believed that I’d make my Liiga debut at this point, but it shows how hard it is to predict life,” Valimaki said, according to a translated interview on the team website. “I believe, however, that at the moment, everyone wins in this equation — playing for Ilves greatly helps my career at this point, and I believe that I can assist Ilves in gathering points during the time I’m here, however long it may be.”

Only as long as the NHL remains in off-season mode, since the brass at the Saddledome are counting on Valimaki to play a regular role this winter. As it stands now, he’ll likely start on the third pair, slotted behind Mark Giordano and Noah Hanifin among left-handed options on Calgary’s defensive depth chart. (Beyond Rasmus Andersson and free-agent signing Chris Tanev, Treliving is presumably still shopping for another righty, unless they’re hoping Oliver Kylington can get comfortable on the opposite side.)

The Flames certainly remain very, very high on Valimaki, who was their first-round draft pick in 2017, has shown plenty of poise and potential in 26 big-league appearances to date and continued to impress with the way he “attacked his rehab” and committed to bulking up in the gym as he recovered from that major knee surgery.

After such a lengthy layoff, it would be no sweat if he’d been just ho-hum so far in his return to action for his hometown team.

That hasn’t been the case.

“When he gets back here, he’ll have a number of games under his belt. He’ll be feeling that much more confident. He’ll have chipped off that much more rust,” Treliving said. “Because you can’t substitute playing. You can train, it’s really important. All the rest of it, it’s really important. But you can’t substitute playing. So the fact that he’s getting some game action is good, and that was the message to him — ‘Go play. Go enjoy yourself. We’ll stay in touch and when you get back here, you’re going to be that much further ahead of the game.’ ”

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Twitter: @WesGilbertson

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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