Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
The Toronto Maple Leafs continue the merry-go-round of NHL looks today, this time calling up defenceman Rinat Valiev from the Toronto Marlies while sending TJ Brennan back down.
As pointed out by Chris Johnston this morning, Valiev will be the 41st player to suit up for the Leafs this year, the most in the league and adding up to nearly two full independent teams. It gives credence to the idea that the big club has gradually morphed into the Marlies plus a few better players. Which is fine, given the rebuild that the team is undergoing.
Valiev, who is a native of Nizhnekamsk, Russia, was drafted by the Leafs in the third round of the 2014 Entry Draft. His route to the NHL wasn’t what you’d expect out of a Russian Prospect, though, as he left the local system after just 21 games in the MHL. Valiev played his Age 17 season with the Indiana Ice of the USHL before joining the Kootenay Ice in his draft year, putting up 37 points in 68 regular season and playoff games.
Valiev returned to Kootenay for his Draft+1 year and took huge strides in his offensive game, putting up 51 points in 59 games. This led to him being called up to the Russian World Junior team, with whom he earned a Silver Medal in the very same Air Canada Centre that he was striving to play in as an NHL player.
While he did get to play two games with the Marlies at the end of last season, this year was, for all intents and purposes, his debut. Paired with Team Captain Andrew Campbell on the ice and with Nikita Soshnikov off of it, Valiev has been one of the more interesting Marlies rookies this year. In 54 games, he has 3 goals and 18 assists. While it took him until November 21st to pick up his first goal, Valiev has becoming increasingly more effective down the stretch, picking up 15 points in his last 27 games and looking more noticiable defensively. Valiev and Campbell are Toronto’s best pair from a plus/minus perspective, with the youngster being an impressive +32.
I spoke with Valiev recently about his recent uptick in play, and he credited it to an increased emphasis on his strength and conditioning, pointing out that his body wasn’t quite ready for the professional grind at the start of the year. This is a common theme for younger players, and one that the Leafs in particular have been proactive in turning around. Frank Corrado, who Valiev is being paired up with up top, is another example of this, to the point that the Leafs sat him out and send him on conditioning sints until they thought he was ready to play. Valiev shot up two spots (from 17 to 15) in our prospect rankings this season as a result of his strong play.
Given the shallow roster, it’s likely that Valiev will make his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators tomorrow. It’ll be interesting to see how he plays, though it’s a safe guarantee that his happy-go-lucky personality will lead to a fun post-game interview.