Juuso Välimäki and Michael Rasmussen had breakout rookie seasons for the Tri-City Americans last year, and this season, the team will expect big things from their young guns.
“When you watch them, you overlook how young they are,” Tri-City general manager Bob Tory said. “You look at them as veteran players. Over the years, we have had young players make major contributions to our team. Once the puck drops, no one is looking at your birth certificate, just how you perform on the ice. It’s harder when you are younger, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
Välimäki, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound native of Nokia, Finland, made a big impact on the blue line last season. In addition to his steady defensive play, he also scored seven goals with 25 assists in 56 games.
“I think I’m ready to handle the pressure,” Välimäki said of taking on a key role with the team. “You can’t worry about it too much. You just have to work hard and have fun every day.”
The 6-5, 200-pound Rasmussen finished with 18 goals and 43 points in 63 games last season, putting him 14th in rookie scoring in the Western Hockey League. But he was the top-scoring 16-year-old in the WHL.
More will be expected of the Surrey, British Columbia, native this season, and he’s ready to step up.
“I think that any time there are expectations, that is a good thing,” Rasmussen said. “Expectations are as high as I put on myself. I’m ready.”
The Americans will look for big things from Välimäki and Rasmussen, as well as the rest of the team, when they open their 29th season Saturday against the Spokane Chiefs at Toyota Center. Game time is 7:05 p.m.
“We need them, but we need everyone else too,” Tory said. “Our team went through a lot of adversity last year. We had a lot of injuries, and Brandon Carlo was at the World Juniors and was injured. At one point, we were down to three or four defensemen, and we were bringing in players left and right. A lot of players got valuable ice time. We stuck with the group we had, and in the long run, it will make us a better team. As disappointing as it was to miss the playoffs, those experiences will make us a stronger team.”
Välimäki has valuable experience for a player who won’t be 18 until Oct. 6, having captained Team Finland to a fourth-place finish at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Tournament and a gold medal at the 2016 World U18 Championships.
“I know what it’s like to be a captain of a team, but it doesn’t matter if you have a ‘C,’ you still have responsibilities,” Välimäki said. “I’m trying to be a leader here too. I have that experience.”
Rasmussen helped Team Canada to a fifth-place finish at the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Tournament, scoring one goal with three assists.
“It’s an honor any time you get to wear the maple leaf,” Rasmussen said. “It’s a tournament of the best players in the world my age. It’s good to get that experience. That, combined with my work in the summer, is huge.”
As well as Välimäki and Rasmussen work together on the ice, they are best friends off it.
Välimäki’s mom, Mia, and his brothers Niko, 14, and Rasmus, 6, moved to the Tri-Cities for the season, and Rasmussen is living with the Välimäki family.
“Juuso and Michael hit it off from the get-go last year,” Tory said. “They ended up billeting together and became very close. They have a lot in common. They are focused on becoming the best they can be, and professional players. As much as Michael helped Juuso’s transition to the states, Juuso helped Michael adjust as a 16-year-old away from home.”
They also appreciate the skills each brings to the ice.
“It’s great to watch him,” Rasmussen said of Välimäki. “He jumps up a lot, he is a mature player and takes charge on the ice. He leads by example.”
“Sometimes I wonder how he saw a pass,” Välimäki said. “He creates for his linemates. He’s a really strong kid and likes to hit. He works hard. I like it when guys really work hard.”
Both players have high expectations for themselves and the team, and believe the Americans will be competitive this season.
“Just coming in from last year to this year, last year wasn’t good enough,” Rasmussen said. “Every game counts. We learned that last year.”
“We have a pretty tight group of guys here,” he said. “We just need to keep working hard. Everyone has another year of experience. I think we have one of the best ‘D’ corps in the league this year, and Sarts (Evan Sarthou) is a warrior in goal. It’s a good combination. Every single one of the 72 games, we have to be ready to play. Every point counts.”
Last season: 35-34-2-1, ninth in Western Conference.
Head coach: Mike Williamson (3rd season).
Assistant coach: Brian Pellerin (3rd season).
Key losses: Leading scorer Parker Bowles, captain Beau McCue and rugged F/D Mackenze Stewart. D Brandon Carlo has another year of eligibility, but has opted to join the Boston Bruins organization.
The 20-year-olds: F Tyler Sandhu (19g, 29a, 48 points), D Jeff Rayman (3g, 2a, 5 points), D Dalton Yorke (2g, 11a, 13 points).
The imports: D Juuso Välimäki (7g, 25a, 32 points), who captained Team Finland to a fourth-place finish at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Tournament, and a gold medal at the 2016 World U18 Championships in April; Russian F Vladislav Lukin (21g, 27a, 48 points).
Key returnees: F Jordan Topping (33g, 34a, 67 points) is the team’s leading returning scorer; D Parker Wotherspoon (11g, 45a, 56 points), the team’s second-leading returning scorer and a solid shutdown defenseman; F Michael Rasmussen (18g, 25a, 43 points) had an outstanding rookie season, and helped Team Canada to a fifth-place finish at the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Tournament (1g, 3a); D Juuso Välimäki; F Tyler Sandhu; G Evan Sarthou (60 GP, 26-28-2-0, 3.46 GAA, .888 save percentage), who will be in his second year as the starter. Was invited to Team USA’s World Junior camp.
New faces: F Carson Focht is a proven scorer and should help out right away. F Keltie Jeri-Leon has shown promise in the preseason, as has C Riley Sawchuk.
Watch for: Tri-City’s defense should be solid with Wotherspoon, Välimäki, Brendan O’Reilly and Dylan Coghlan returning, and the addition of Yorke (from Prince Albert). Wotherspoon and Välimäki are good with the puck and helping out with scoring.
Did you know: The Americans had their 13-year playoff streak stopped when they fell two points shy last season. ... Rasmussen and Välimäki are mentioned on the NHL Central Scouting 2017 NHL Draft Futures list.
The prognosis: While scoring is a need, consistency in goal is a must if Tri-City wants to get back to the top of the U.S. Division. Sarthou was a step below his stellar season the year before when he stepped in for the injured Eric Comrie. The Americans will be young once again, but second-year forwards Morgan Geekie, Parker AuCoin and Nolan Yaremko got a ton of ice time as rookies and should be ready for more responsibility this season.