Selecting a player in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft is a crapshoot at best, but Tri-City Americans general manager Bob Tory had his eyes on a certain player for a couple of years. He was confident Juuso Välimäki would be a solid choice.
He was right.
The Americans picked up the 6-foot-2, 195-pound defenseman with the 14th overall pick in June’s draft.
“It’s always a stressful time,” Tory said about the import draft. “I knew about him. I went to Finland a couple of years ago, but he was too young at the time. I had an idea of the position and age I wanted for the future, and I spent a lot of time talking to his agent. We were fortunate to pick high and get a player of his quality.”
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Välimäki has been getting his feet wet in the Western Hockey League during the Americans’ team camp. So far, so good.
“I like it here,” Välimäki said. “It’s a nice place, and the guys are awesome. This is a great opportunity for me. I’m doing my best. The speed (of the game) is the biggest thing, and it is more physical. The rink is smaller, and there are more shots.”
Tri-City coach Mike Williamson has been impressed with how quickly Välimäki has adjusted.
“He looks composed, and he looks mature,” Williamson said. “By watching him play, you wouldn’t know he was still 16. There is always an adjustment period. For this being my first look at him, I’m excited as to what he will bring. He moves the puck well and looks to be a steady defenseman. He has a lot of work to do, but they all do at this age.”
A native of Nokia, Finland, Välimäki played for Ilves Tampere of the Finnish Junior A-league last season, scoring five goals with 15 assists in 44 games. He played in 10 playoff games, registering one goal and three assists. He played for Finland in the Ivan Hlinka Tournament in 2014 and the U-18 World Championships in 2015 as an underage player.
Välimäki, who will turn 17 on Oct. 6, has logged a ton of ice time at the under-18 level, playing on the U-18 Ivan Hlinka team the past two years. He was captain of this year’s team that finished fourth. He also played for Team Finland at the U-18 World Championships in 2015 as an underage.
“It is a great thing to be a captain,” he said. “We had a great team.”
Williamson likes Välimäki’s confidence.
“That is a good characteristic to have,” Williamson said. “We knew he was the leader on the national team, but there is no arrogance. I like what I see. This is training camp, and it will pick up in Everett (during this weekend’s preseason tournament). I’m very confident he can raise the level of his game.”
While he knows he has room for improvement, Välimäki believes his strengths will be an asset to the team.
“I like to be with the puck, and I pass pretty well,” Välimäki said. “I like to go with the forwards and support them if I can. I think I can be an all-around player.”
The Americans are on the ice at 11:30 a.m. today in Everett for the opening game of the Holiday Inn Preseason Classic against the Seattle Thunderbirds. Tri-City will play at 11:30 a.m. Saturday against the Portland Winterhawks and at 11:30 a.m. Sunday against the Victoria Royals.
“This is a big weekend,” Williamson said. “We have been evaluating a lot. Now with the pace picking up, we will see who will step up. That includes the veterans. We are going to have some hard decisions to make.”
In the crease
Americans starting goaltender Evan Sarthou has had plenty of company in the blue paint this week.
Nick Sanders (Calgary, Alberta), Beck Warm (West Vancouver, British Columbia) and Noel Zuccaro (San Jose, Calif.) have been battling for the backup job. Zuccaro was sent home, leaving Sanders and Warm to compete for a roster spot.
“Sanders and Warm had the inside track being here last year,” Williamson said. “They have to continue to raise the level of their game. We need to see them take another step forward.”
Adding two more to the fold
The Americans signed two prospects Thursday to standard WHL player agreements.
Forward Kyle Olson, a third-round bantam draft pick in 2014, is from Calgary. He had 16 goals and 20 assists in 32 games last year with the Calgary Buffaloes of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Seth Bafaro, a defenseman taken in the third round of May’s bantam draft, is from Revelstoke, British Columbia. He scored eight goals with 24 assists in 57 games last season with the OHA Bantam Prep team.