Rinat Valiev is the youngest of the Marlies' defensemen at age 21 ("He's younger than Stuart Percy, Viktor Loov, TJ Brennan, Justin Holl, Andrew Campbell, and David Kolomatis," Fulemin reminds us), and arguably the best defensive prospect on the Marlies. He went undrafted in 2013, only to be drafted as an over-ager in 2014, an early sign that the Leafs' front office was aware of this market
Valiev played all but two games in the season after his draft with the Kootenay Ice of the WHL. After the Ice were out of the 2014-2015 playoffs, Valiev joined the Marlies for two games, and was not very noticeable at all -- which is probably what you want out of a young defenseman's first two games as a pro.
In 2015-2016, Valiev spent most of the season with the Marlies, with the exception of the ten games he played with the Leafs when he was called up on March 11. With the Leafs he was once again not very noticeable, playing ten careful games and registering a row of zeros on the scoresheet. Again, for a first-year pro defenseman, not being noticed is better than being noticed for all the wrong things.
When Valiev was asked about his game after being drafted in 2014, he laid out his goals: "I try to play physical and shoot, looking for pucks a lot." Has he carried out this plan? Watching highlights of his play from Leafs and Marlies this past season, what is evident is that Valiev has focused more on the defensive side of his play as a first-year professional. Last season, he scored four goals in 60 games played, which does not indicate a shoot-first mentality quite yet -- but he also tallied 19 assists.
In the words of MLHS's Mark Rackham, who watched Valiev in nearly every game last season, "Valiev is the Leafs' best defensive prospect on the Marlies. He had a strong rookie campaign, which showed steady growth and a body of improving work through the season. This is illustrated by his early season minor penalty infractions, which lessened as the young Russian adapted to the professional game and improved his positional awareness on the ice."
Welcome to the Top 25, Valiev!
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A group of us stuck him firmly into 19th place, undoubtedly giving him leeway for his role as a growing defenseman. Some of us thought he was more a 25th place kind of guy, and B1rky rounded out the curve by placing him 12th. (Explain yourself, B1rky!) We mostly agree that he's a lower-half of the rankings kind of player, but see that there's plenty of time for this young defenseman to improve.
Valiev made the Top 25 Under 25 after playing his first full season with the Marlies, probably because we all got to watch him grow.
His play is currently marked by two things: the desire to protect the Marlies' net, and the skill to do it by carrying the puck out of the zone. While his shot borders on tentative, his puck handling skills are excellent, and so is his skating. Valiev can take the puck away from a forward deep in his end and use his size (6'2, 208 lbs) and speed to protect the puck. Once he's skated swiftly through the neutral zone, though, Valiev's first instinct is to find the nearest forward and pass.
Is he a good young defenseman? In all the defensive-defenseman ways, he is. He's trusted with top-four minutes on the ice, and has rewarded this trust by enabling the Marlies' forwards to score whenever he's there. Sean Tierney provided us with a breakdown of his play in relation to his team last season (chart below), pointing out that he helped drive plays that lead to scoring. One caveat to reading much into these numbers is that last season, no matter who was on the ice, the Marlies had a tendency to score -- the Marlies had a record-setting number of wins, and did it by scoring a league-leading number of goals.
Still, it shows that Valiev had the skill to retrieve the puck and keep it in the Marlies' zone, and that he can continue to be a reliable top-four defenseman for the Marlies in his second year.
On a lighter note, is he one of Babcock's all-important "good people," though? When Valiev was up with the Leafs, he spent some time playing interpreter for his good friend and 20 questions comrade Nikita Soshnikov. In 20 questions, Valiev showed that he has an excellent sense of humor. His hobby is sleeping, and he wears the number 61 because he's afraid of pissing off Sam Carrick by asking for his old number 16 back. He does a mighty fine Russian-boy rendition of Rihanna's song Work, loves Chipotle (but only on cheat days), and thinks that Boston cream donuts are the best donuts he's ever eaten.
From the perspective of avid Marlies' fan and blogger Sean Boulton, Valiev's speed is what makes him an interesting player. "I like his instincts," Boulton said. "[Valiev] seemed to have a good sense of when to leap into starting a rush and has enough speed to come back and cover when the play turns back quickly. He generally makes a good first pass, although it's tough to say how much that's him and how much is a talented forward corps getting themselves into position. H'es not a banger, but physical enough, and wasn't afraid to step into situations to defend teammates. Pairing with Campbell was effective. With Brennan gone, will be interesting to see how much they look to him for offense from the blue line. Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott (if he stays) will fight for that role."
What does Valiev need to do to improve? According to Mark Rakham, he has to stop passing and start working on his shot. "He'll be expected to contribute more offensively this year with Brennan and Percy departed," Mark said, "And with Campbell unlikely to repeat career numbers. More power play time should be afforded [to him] with the aforementioned duo gone, and [he will] likely need to be a mainstay of the special teams should the Marlies be successful in that regard. Surprisingly he was given plenty of opportunities on the penalty kill last year, resulting in four points (1G/3PA) which was second best on the team behind Zach Hyman."
Keep up the good work, young Valiev!
With thanks to Mark Rakham, Sean Boulton, and Sean Tierney for their insight.