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Valiev heads into rookie season with Marlies

by Chris Lund / Toronto Maple Leafs

As the Leafs begin a build oriented around the draft and development, there are no shortage of names to keep tabs on moving into the future. William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Mitch Marner provide a wealth of name value to the forthcoming forward corps.

On the back end, Rinat Valiev is a promising prospect leaving an impression for the Leafs.

Valiev enters his rookie season with the Toronto Marlies after playing a pair seasons with the Kootenay Ice of the Western League. In 107 games with the Ice, he recorded 14 goals and 72 points from the blueline. He was also a key member of Russia's silver medal winning squad at the 2015 World Juniors, recording three assists in seven games.

Following strong play with Kootenay and Russia, Valiev earned the chance to play a pair of games with the Leafs' AHL affiliate to end the 2014-15 season.

While a lot of focus is paid to on-ice results, those can be bolstered by comfort and confidence away from the rink. For Valiev, the trial run at the end of last season has eased him into a comfort zone as he adjusts to life as a Marlie.

"The guys, half of the team is the same," said Valiev. "Even Toronto, being here, I know a lot of places to go and stuff like that. That has helped me a lot."

Now the work begins building on that comfort zone and establishing himself as a professional hockey player. Valiev enjoyed a strong showing for the Maple Leafs in rookie camp, the Rookie Tournament and through NHL camp. He stayed with the NHL group until the final round of Leafs cuts on Oct. 4.

The opportunity to become familiar with Sheldon Keefe and Mike Babcock prior to the season was a positive one for his development.

"That was awesome, I really liked working with Sheldon (Keefe) and Mike Babcock," said Valiev. "I learned a lot of stuff in the Leafs camp and I really like it there. I just want to try to start showing my best game with the Marlies."

Despite being a rookie, Valiev will also take on the role of mentor this season. Marlies teammate Nikita Soshnikov has joined the organization after playing with the KHL's Moscow Oblast Atlant last season. The transition is Soshnikov's first taste of North American life and he will be relying on Valiev -- who left home at 17 to come to North America -- to help lead the way. So far the apprenticeship is going well.

"I'm trying to help him as much as I can everywhere. On the ice, off the ice, he's doing pretty well," said Valiev. "He started learning English a few months ago and he's already understanding some of the words and improving."

On the ice Valiev will be relied upon as a two-way defenceman. His role is crucial to the function of the system implemented by Babcock and mirrored by the Marlies.

His favourite player to watch growing up was current Philadelphia Flyers defender Evgeny Medvedev, who starred for the KHL's Ak-Bars Kazan, Valiev's hometown team. He tries to emulate Mevedev's heads up, puck moving style.

When played effectively, Valiev's game fits perfectly with that of his team.

"Control the puck, play fast, play offensive," said Valiev. "That's the type of game I like to play."

Growing up, Valiev had his sights set on a career as a professional soccer player. He only began playing hockey to emulate his brother who picked up the game first. Eventually Valiev's hockey coach convinced him to make the full-time switch. He gets his footy fix playing with Barcelona or Paris Saint-Germain on his Playstation with hockey being his professional life.

While he is a long way from home, his love of the game is what brought him this far and it's what will make Toronto his second home for the foreseeable future.

"It's a big city with great fans and it's a hockey town," said Valiev. "Everything is about hockey here. I really like it."

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