Rinat Valiev was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014, in the third round at 68th overall. He was acquired just before the 2018 trade deadline by the Montreal Canadiens, in the package that sent lifetime Habs player Tomas Plekanec and AHLer Kyle Baun to the Leafs in exchange for the defenceman, a 2018 second-round pick (which became Jacob Olofsson), and Kerby Rychel.
This is therefore his first entry in the Top 25 Under 25 for the Habs. While playing for the Leafs organization, he was first ranked on sister site Pension Plan Puppets’ list in 2016, debuting at 21st. In 2017, he fell to 25th. He’s clocking in at 24th in our rankings.
As the only data about Valiev comes from the Leafs organization, it would be very difficult to evaluate how he will fare with Laval or the Habs. He didn't spend much time with the farm team at the end of last season, as the Habs were in a full tryout mode for their prospects. It didn’t take him long to get the call as he only played a single game for the Laval Rocket upon his arrival, registering an assist on a Rychel power-play goal.
As luck would have it, Valiev couldn't stay with the main club for very long. He made his debut with the Habs when they took on the New Jersey Devils on March 6, but his stint with the club came to an abrupt end when he sustained an injury against the Florida Panthers in his very next game. He was returned to the Rocket after his recovery, playing in the last few games of the year on the farm team. He registered a goal and an assist in the final four games of the Rocket’s season.
Valiev had played 40 games with the Toronto Marlies and another five in the AHL with Laval, netting six goals and 18 points during that time.
As you can see with the votes, the staff of EOTP had no real consensus on where Valiev should be ranked. His highest vote was 14th, with other votes extending to 30th. In my case, I had him ranked in the bottom of the range at 29th. In my eyes, he isn’t quite where I’d like a 23-year-old defender to be.
Suffice to say, Valiev is somewhat of a divisive prospect. He’s getting older and will soon have to make his mark if he’s to stick in the NHL.
He signed a one-year, two-way contract for the 2018-19 season. This feels very much like a ‘prove your worth’ contract for the upcoming year. Being in a new organization, Valiev will undoubtedly wants to prove himself to his new bosses. Depending on how the year will unfold for the Canadiens, we might see Valiev get a shot at cracking the roster at some point during the year. This might come as soon as training camp.
After Valiev was traded, an article at Pension Plan Puppets stated that he had “evolved into one of the most dependable defencemen” for the Marlies, and that he “might find himself on the Habs roster sooner rather than later” given the type of defensive player they tend to favour.
He would need to have quite the camp to leapfrog a few notable prospects in the depth chart. Still, being a left-handed defender might help him carve out a role on the bottom pairing.
At 6’3’’, and 215 pounds, he could become a decent choice as a more stay-at-home option. When he’s playing a physical game, the Russian defender can be a disruptive force against the opposition. He has the physique and the tools to be a sixth or seventh defenceman on a Habs team needing a few bodies to flesh out the roster.
Valiev will not wow you with his point-production. His game is more heavily skewed to the defensive aspects, with limited offensive upside. This doesn’t mean you won’t see the occasional play that will make you acknowledge his talents.
Still, if Valiev wants to be able to crack an NHL roster, he will need to refine his all-around ability. He doesn’t have many glaring flaws that jump out, but he could stand to improve on his already solid foundation to maximize his potential at the highest level.
While his shot isn’t the most impressive or dangerous, Valiev’s puck-handling skills are excellent, and so is his skating. Due to his imposing stature, he can take the puck away from a forward deep in his own end and use his size and speed to protect the puck.
Once he’s navigated to the neutral zone, Valiev’s first instinct is to find the nearest forward for a pass. As said before, Valiev still plays a more defensive game even though he has a toolkit fitting of a puck-carrying defenceman. He is still a defender who helps his forwards with good outlet passes and setting up plays to maintain possession.
“[Valiev] was trusted with top-four minutes on the ice, and rewarded this trust by enabling the Marlies’ forwards to score whenever he was there,” the Pension Plan Puppets article explains. “He had a positive impact on players around him.”
That impact is obvious in his relative goals-for percentage. With the normal value being close to 0, since that’s somewhere around team average, his goals-for percentage was 4.8 points higher that what the team posted while he was off the ice. An off-ice stat of 52.34% is still a great score for what proved to be the best team in the AHL last season, but not quite as good as Valiev’s 57.14%.
Keep in mind that most of his season was spent playing with the Marlies, who were at the opposite end of the quality spectrum to the Rocket, but just for fun, let’s compare last season’s offensive numbers for Valiev and Brett Lernout.
As you see in the graph, Valiev outperformed Lernout in most categories besides shots on goal per game (Sh/GP) — a reminder that Valiev should be using his shot more often. Otherwise, he produced much more in terms of offence despite his defensive role.
Overall, Valiev is currently looking like the better player of the two.
Given his good work ethic in his own zone, we could see Valiev challenging for a spot on the Canadiens roster. It wouldn’t be entirely strange to see Valiev replace one of Jordie Benn, David Schlemko, or Mike Reilly on the left side. As of right now, the only left-handed defender assured a spot is Karl Alzner. The other two spots — on the top and bottom pairing — are up for grabs, with Victor Mete also a key player in the mix. Seeing how the left side is shaping up for the upcoming season, Valiev might have a chance to crack the Habs lineup in that latter position.
At the end of the day, Valiev brings some skills and a robust defensive game. He could potentially make the Habs if the stars align and he has an impressive showing at camp. He would be valuable depth and could be a real boon to a Laval team that needs to show drastic improvement over last year, but he would need to clear waivers before that could happen.