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Rinat Valiev making real strides

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The 21 year-old is increasingly looking like an on-ice leader for these rookie Leafs

Christian Bonin | TSGphoto.com

You notice Rinat Valiev right away. Now listed at 6'3" and 213 pounds, he's hard to miss. But what really stands out is that Valiev is clearly ready to move on from the rookie tournament.

"Yeah, I feel confident. ... The fact that I played in the NHL already, that helps," he admits.

He was the Leafs' best defender by a mile last night, and it's not hard to see why. His decisions with the puck in his own end are responsible, and in the offensive zone, he's taken his game to another level. He can calmly step around a player or two before making a good play - nothing flashy, but almost always effective. He's certainly stronger, too. Clearing the front of the net isn't difficult for him in this rookie tournament, and he cleans up well along the boards, where the Leafs often have under-sized wingers.

Valiev is never going to be a puck-rushing defenceman - his speed isn't what sets him apart - but he skates fluidly enough to play a solid, two-way game. His positioning and ability to read the play generally mean that he doesn't have to turn the jets on very often anyway, at least at this level. He can read the game well at this speed.

"I worked hard in the summer to get bigger, stronger. ... I have more power, I would say. ... That gives me confidence because when you feel tired, you make mistakes. You know, when you're tired, you wonder 'should I make this play or not?' then it's too late."

The fact that he's becoming more and more comfortable in the Leafs' organization is helping, too.

"It feels really good. It's nice to get some games going and I'm happy to see the boys. It feels nice. ... It's easier than my first year for sure, because I know the guys, I know the staff."

Asked whether or not he feels that he can be a leader here at this tournament and in the AHL and he responds without hesitation.

"Yeah, for sure. ... I think it's time for me, because I'm not that young anymore."

Perhaps the best news in all of this is that Valiev isn't actually that old, either. At 21, he still has plenty of growth potential, both in the literal and figurative sense of the term. He's still getting physically stronger, and appears poised to log some big minutes for the Marlies going forward.

We haven't seen the last of him in the NHL.