The NCAA’s opening weekend featured some big performances, while Tri-City’s Juuso Valimaki is burning up the WHL in his second year.
The NCAA season is upon us, so we’re officially in full swing for the season. Now, a lot of lopsided games happened this weekend, so I’m tempering my reactions for now. But the stars do seem to be rising to the top as expected. And we’re already seeing some monster performances in the CHL and Europe, so let’s get to this week’s round-up of players we’re excited to see in the NHL one day.
Juuso Valimaki, D – Tri-City Americans (WHL): Talk about a welcoming committee. First WHL game, first WHL shift last year, Valimaki got challenged to fight by a rival in Spokane. The Finnish import turned the invitation down and knowing what Valimaki can do in other facets of the game, it’s hard to argue with the decision.
An excellent puckmover with smarts and size, Valimaki had a solid rookie campaign with the Americans and he’s off to an even better start this season, with six points in his first seven games.
And while the 2017 draft prospect turns down dance invitations, he’s certainly not intimidated by the ‘Dub.’
“I like it,” he said. “It’s more simple than in Europe because of the smaller rink. You don’t have that much time and there’s lots of hitting and shooting. But I’m a big guy, so I can hit and shoot, too.”
Indeed, at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Valimaki has NHL size already. He helped steer Finland to a championship at the world under-18s this past spring and was a key member of the national team’s world junior summer roster that competed in Michigan. His quick adaptation to North America has been a boon for Tri-City and he’s even got the right influences – along with Drew Doughty, his favorite defenseman to watch is classic WHL blueliner Shea Weber. But Valimaki has also picked up the life away from the rink as well, transitioning from Finland to small-town Washington state.
“Obviously it’s a little bit different, but it’s not that big a deal,” he said. “Once you live there a couple weeks, you get used to doing everything like they do. Great friends make it a lot easier.”
Valimaki will be a key part of Finland’s world junior title defense this year, especially if big offensive guns Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi are too busy in the NHL. The defenseman already has one gold medal from the U-18s and those memories will no doubt help.
“It was awesome,” Valimaki said. “To win that tournament was unreal. We had a great team and that was the biggest thing; we were a team and we played so well together.”
In the Pipeline
Logan Brown, C (Ottawa): Brown may still need to get stronger to be an NHL threat, but he has no problem carving up the OHL right now. The big playmaker earned league player of the week honors on the strength of eight points in three games for the Windsor Spitfires and he has not been held off the scoresheet once through six contests.
Igor Shesterkin, G (NY Rangers): Calm, agile and blessed with a quick glove hand, Shesterkin has a lot of good traits for a goalie. Also, he rarely seems to give up a goal. Shesterkin just had a four-game shutout streak snapped and as you can imagine, his stats are quite good right now. The SKA St. Petersburg netminder has a .940 save percentage and 1.61 goals-against average.
Alex DeBrincat, RW (Chicago): Connor McDavid is gone, Dylan Strome is now gone, yet DeBrincat keeps piling up points in Erie. The quick-shooting and elusive winger has eight points in his first three games for the Otters, raising the following question: Can he top 100 points for a third straight OHL season?
Tage Thompson, RW (St. Louis): He had a great summer world junior tourney with Team USA and Thompson has kept it rolling through the first weekend of play with UConn. The lanky but deadly right winger rang up five points in a two-game sweep of Alabama-Huntsville.
Ryan Zuhlsdorf, D (Tampa Bay): The Minnesota freshman kicked off his Golden Gophers career in style by notching the game-winning goal in his debut. All told, the smart and versatile Zuhlsdorf came out of the weekend with three points and two wins. Not a bad start.
2017 Draft Stars
Casey Mittelstadt, C – Green Bay Gamblers (USHL): Mittelstadt is scheduled to head back to Eden Prairie once the Minnesota high school season has begun, which is a shame for the Gamblers – because he’s been on fire. The dynamic pivot is tied for second in league scoring with seven points in five games and he’s going to the net to get them. Mittelstadt is a University of Minnesota commit.
Cody Glass, C – Portland Winterhawks (WHL): Your WHL player of the week and scoring leader, Glass has put up 15 points in just eight games for the Hawks. A dynamic playmaker with great vision, the Winnipeg native does the bulk of his trade in assists (11 so far).
Antoine Morand, C – Acadie-Bathurst Titan (QMJHL): The Titan aren’t off to a great start, but they’ve got a gem in Morand. The incredibly skilled pivot has been excellent on the power play and makes sweet, sweet music when he has the puck on his stick. Morand has eight points through seven games.
2018 Draft Star
Andrei Svechnikov, C – Muskegon Lumberjacks (USHL): The Russian phenom scored his first USHL goal on the weekend, a nice wraparound number that saw him use his great 6-foot-2 frame for maximum effectiveness. The powerful kid now has four points in his first five games.
Well, I cursed a couple players in my NCAA preview. Ottawa pick Todd Burgess (R.P.I.) is out for the season after knee surgery, while San Jose’s Marcus Vela (New Hampshire) will miss a month due to a concussion and shoulder separation.