Come Friday night, Juuso Välimäki and Michael Rasmussen’s lives could change forever.
The two Tri-City Americans players are slated to be first-round draft picks in the NHL Draft in Chicago. But before they put on their ties and jackets, they are enjoying a little down time in the Windy City.
They took in the Chicago Cubs-San Diego Padres game Wednesday at Wrigley Field, have worked out a couple of times, had dinner with their families and even got in a little shopping.
“It’s beautiful here,” said Välimäki, who arrived in Chicago from Finland on Monday. “It’s my first trip to Chicago and it is awesome. I love the big buildings. There are no skyscrapers in Finland.”
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The first round of the draft is Friday, while Rounds 2 through 7 will be Saturday. Välimäki and Rasmussen, who both played in the Top Prospects Game in January, are hoping to get off the board Friday and enjoy the rest of the weekend.
“This is really exciting for me and my family,” Rasmussen said. “I try not to look at the (draft) number, but being competitive, I want to go as high as possible.”
The Americans have not had a first-round NHL draft pick since Chet Pickard went 18th overall to Nashville in 2008. They have not had two first-round picks since 1996 with Dan Focht (11th, Phoenix) and Jaroslav Svejkovsky (17th, Washington).
Tri-City forward Morgan Geekie also is expected to be selected in the top half of the draft, but he opted to stay home with his family in Strathclair, Manitoba.
Rasmussen, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound power forward from Surrey, British Columbia, is one of the most-sought after players in the draft. He was ranked fifth in the final Central Scouting rankings, with good reason.
He scored 32 goals (15 on the power play) with 23 assists in 50 games before knee and wrist injuries derailed the rest of his season.
“Not many guys who are 6-6 can put up those kind of numbers,” Tri-City general manager Bob Tory said. “He has a good hockey IQ and he skates well for his size.”
Välimäki, a 6-2, 211-pound defenseman, was ranked ninth in the mid-season rankings, but dropped to 11th in the final report, despite 19 goals and 42 assists in 60 games.
“His first pass out of the zone is good,” Tory said. “His hockey IQ is tremendous and his passing sets him apart. Whoever selects him will get a very good defenseman.”
Geekie (6-2, 190) is ranked 45th, while forward Kyle Olson (5-10, 160) is 56th.
Geekie led the Americans in scoring last season with 35 goals and 55 assists (90 points) while playing in all 72 games.
“Morgan has a quick release on his shot and has shown he can score,” Tory said. “Kyle is not a big guy, but his work ethic and compete level are off the charts.”
The Americans have a few sleepers in the draft in defenseman Dylan Coghlan (6-2, 190), who is ranked 77th, forward Brett Leason (6-4, 196, 133rd), and defenseman Dakota Krebs (6-4, 200, 153rd).
Forward Isaac Johnson (6-2, 180), recently signed by the Americans, is ranked 97th after moving up from 118th at midseason.
“We had one of the youngest teams in the WHL last year, and we had kids in difficult situations, and they developed,” Tory said. “They are all good kids. It’s an exciting time for our team. This is the first step to becoming a pro player.”
Put to the test
Välimäki, Rasmussen and Geekie attended the NHL Combine from May 29-June 3 in Buffalo, New York. While Rasmussen was limited to just a few tests because of his wrist, Välimäki and Geekie put on a show.
Geekie finished in the top 10 in seven of the 12 events, including third in the long jump (9 1/2 feet), fourth in the vertical jump (24.4 inches), and fourth in pro agility left (4.46 seconds) and pro agility right (4.41 seconds). He was seventh in consecutive pullups with 11.
“It’s definitely an exciting time,” Geekie siad. “I was very humbled to get an invite to the combine. I had a good experience and I was confident in my abilities. It was a learning experience for me. I took it in stride and learned some things. It was cool to get to share the experience with Jusso and Michael.”
Välimäki was third in pro agility left (4.45 seconds), fifth in aerobic duration (15 minutes, 57 seconds) and fourth in anaerobic fitness-peak power output (16.9 watts/kg).
Välimäki and Geekie tied for 13th on the V02max (measuring the amount of oxygen utilized (VO2 max) during maximal exercise).
“That is pretty tough,” Välimäki said of the V02max. “I had a pretty good score. I have done it before with the national team in Finland.”
Rasmussen was able to participate in the aerobic duration (part of the V02max), where he was fourth with a time of 16 minutes. He also had the third-widest wing span of 79.25 inches.
“It was hard and intense,” he said of the V02max. “I have been working hard and it was good to get it done. It lived up to the hype. I think the interviews went well. They were fun.”
All three went through interviews with interested teams.
Välimäki met with every team except Dallas and Minnesota.
“I guess they didn’t want to talk to me,” he said. “I have positive feelings about Friday. Over the year with the rankings and talking to scouts and the combine, I think they all went well. It will be interesting to see where we all go.”
The waiting game
While Rasmussen and Välimäki are expected to go in the first round, the rest of the players likely will be waiting to hear their names called Saturday.
“I’m just taking it day by day and hopefully things turn out right for the guys on the team,” said Geekie, who was passed over in the draft last year. “I worked as hard as I could and I’m glad things have worked out as well as they have. If I get drafted, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but I’m trying not to put too much thought into it.”
Coghlan (15 goals, 38 assists) had the best season of his three-year WHL career paired with veteran Parker Wotherspoon. While some of his teammates have enjoyed the draft process, he said things have been quiet on his end.
“My agent has talked to a few teams,” he said. “I try not to think about it too much. It’s nice for our organization to have five or six guys who could get drafted. Playing with Parker, I gained a lot of confidence and that took my game to another level. It will be weird not to have him around, but Juuso and I are ready to take control.”
Like Geekie, Coghlan also was passed over during last year’s draft.
“I was upset last year, but that motivated me for the season,” he said. “I have given myself the opportunity to have my name called.”