One of the more interesting byproducts of a team that rapidly builds up a prospect pool is when a player falls down the depth chart almost entirely based on acquisitions, rather than their own lack of progression. In a way, I feel like this is a good way to describe Rinat Valiev’s situation right now; while some would hope for him to have progressed further at this point, his biggest setback in the organization is that they’ve continued to build around him.

Age 22 (May 11, 1995) Birthplace Nizhnekamsk, Russia
Pos Defence (LH) Drafted 2014 (Rd 3, Pick 68)
Vitals 6’2, 187lbs Acquired Via Draft

Valiev’s career path has been one of the more interesting ones in the organization. Like most Russian prospects in this era, he started off in his team (Ak Bars Kazan)’s youth program and dipped his toes into the MHL, but instead of seeing that method of development through, he made the decision to head to North America.

Usually, this means going straight to major junior, but Valiev instead started in the USHL. He impressed many in his half-season there, got a look in their top prospects game, and at the end of the season, was picked in the CHL Import Draft by Kootenay. Since then, he’s strung together a couple of decent WHL seasons, played in the World Juniors, been a pretty solid AHLer, and even gotten a cup of coffee with the Leafs.

All things considered, not bad for a 22-year-old considered to be on the long shot side of the spectrum.

16  2011-12  Bars Kazan  MHL 15 1 1 2 3.4 10 9
17  2012-13  Indiana Ice  USHL 36 6 7 13 8 43 -6
18  2013-14  Kootenay Ice  WHL 55 5 23 28 12.1 68 27
19  2014-15  Kootenay Ice  WHL 52 9 37 46 21 53 22
20  2015-16  Toronto Maple Leafs  NHL 10 0 0 0 0 0 0
20  Toronto Marlies  AHL 60 4 19 23 14.8 30 32
21  2016-17  Toronto Marlies  AHL 47 3 10 13 10.7 79 -5

Last year was a very interesting one for Valiev. He regressed in point production, though the fact that the Marlies use defencemen very sparingly in powerplay situations probably didn’t help his cause. A mid-season knee injury led to him missing a ton of time and struggling once he came back. He was last among regular Marlies defencemen in Relative GF%, though most of his healthy time came in their early-season run of horrific puck luck so it’s hard to say how much of that is him.

On the positive side of things, Valiev was used on both sides of the ice, often with Andrew Campbell on what was considered to be the team’s shutdown pair. Quality of Competition estimations places Valiev’s typical opponents as the toughest that any regular Marlies defenceman faced.

pGPSn pGPSs Exp. Success % Exp. P/82 Exp. Value
199 (11/31) 64 (1/31) 29.5% (10/31) 20.6 (25/31) 6.1 (14/31)

The above numbers are products of the Prospect Graduation Probabilities System (pGPS), created by Canucks Army to project a prospect’s odds of becoming an NHL regular. For a run-down on what each of these stats mean, head back to the introduction.

Projection metrics have Valiev as perhaps the safest bet to be some sort of NHLer on the team, though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll break out once he gets there. A decent amount of defencemen that have produced at his age, league, and makeup have gone on to get a chance in the NHL (like he already has), and a high percentage of them stick around. A steady, reliable two-way defenceman that doesn’t have the pedigree to break the bank is almost always guaranteed to find themselves an NHL job. Whether that means much for Valiev’s future in Toronto is up for debate, given their competitors’ aspirations, but the data agrees with the common sense opinion that he’ll have little trouble finding stability somewhere.

What you see in Valiev lines up a lot with what you get. He’s not overly flashy with the puck, and will rarely get you that hail-mary assist, but he can get it out of the zone and when he has it in close, has a shot capable of putting it in the net sometimes. He’s physical when he needs to be, doesn’t mind staying back to make the smart positional play, and as we learned almost to a fault at the start of the season, is happy to drop the gloves once tempers flare. There isn’t anything in his game that marks a future star, but there’s a lot that marks being able to stick around as a pro.

The Upcoming Year

As referenced at the beginning of this post, Valiev’s biggest concern moving forward is his surroundings. Already losing the googly-eyes of many fans and scouts after the emergence of Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen, the signings of Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen have made competition on the left side a bit of a mess. To Valiev’s advantage, he does have the ability to play on the right side as well, but if Toronto keeps working to address themselves there, he’ll lose that fallback.

This year will provide him with an interesting window of opportunity, though. Valiev’s at the right age where bouncing up and down won’t do as much harm to his development as it would to someone like Dermott or Nielsen; combine that with his waiver-exempt status and quality play could lead to him being an emergency call-up a few times throughout the year. Not to mention, his even strength time should be a little bit easier with additional depth added and with the younger guys now more capable of taking on those minutes, and he’ll be healthier come opening night than he was to close out the year.

Long-Term Outlook

If I’m being honest, I don’t think Valiev’s future stands with the Maple Leafs. That’s not really a knock on him; he’s likely going to exceed the odds given to a player drafted in the spot that he was taken, but as long as Toronto continues to do everything they can to upgrade their defence in anticipation of stretch runs and big rings, there’s going to be less and less room for the safe, dependable #6.

That isn’t to say that he isn’t an NHLer, though. I probably feel safer about him than just about anybody else on this list, and if Toronto does decide to move on from him down the line, whichever team decides to take that flier on him is unlikely to regret it. That time may still be a while away, though. For now, one can continue to enjoy what he adds to the organization, both in terms of play and in terms of flexibility.

To see the other profiles in this year’s series, please reference the full list.

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