As well as acting as the hub for the Kootenay Ice, Cranbrook, BC is widely regarded for its rich railway history which dates back to the turn of the twentieth century. So it’s almost poetic that Rinat Valiev landed there in an effort to get a potential NHL career back on track.
The 18-year-old Russian defenseman was draft-eligible last season and was thought by some to be a mid-round selection – he was ranked as the 141st North American skater by Central Scouting – but went unclaimed. While the “Russian factor” often plays a role in the slight of a seemingly talented enough Russian prospect, as much can not be said about Valiev, who left the motherland midway through the 2012-13 campaign to join the Indiana Ice of the USHL.
Rather, the 6’1", 190-pound defender who came advertised as an offensive catalyst had a rather unassuming season with Indiana, recording 13 points and a -6 rating through 36 regular season games. It’s easy to fly under the radar with those types of numbers, especially playing in the USHL; it won’t be as easy this June, as Valiev has become an integral part of Kootenay’s blue line, logging 20-plus minutes a night, playing comfortably with an array of defense partners, and, of course, contributing 27 points through 46 games so far this season.
“For a guy we knew very little about, he’s been a big improvement to our team,” Ryan McGill, head coach of Kootenay, told Hockey’s Future.
Characterized by a rebuilding forward group that features top 2014 prospect Sam Reinhart, the Ice were in need of defensemen this past off-season, particularly in their top four, where they lost 20-year-old overager and captain, Joey Leach. The CHL Import Draft can often be a crap shoot in terms of actually convincing selected players to play in the league, but the fact that Valiev had already shown a desire to play – and advance his career – in North America made him the ideal target for a team in dire need of defense.
Luckily, the team’s president and general manager, Jeff Chynoweth, had a working relationship with Valiev’s agent, and was convinced to make Valiev the 25th player – and eighth defenseman – taken in the draft.
In his first five games with the club, Valiev contributed four helpers and had a plus/minus of +4, but November was less than kind. His four points in 13 games was a far cry from what the team had been expecting and his defensive zone play fell short at times.
“Once in awhile you had to remind him about his defensive responsibilities,” said McGill of Valiev’s early-season struggles, which included an own goal in his second WHL game. “But he deserves a lot of credit for improving.”
McGill, a former NHL defenseman of 151 games, noted that Valiev often wandered out of position during that first month or so, or would have issues keeping up with the puck, which certainly can be forgiven considering adjustments both on- and off-ice that he has had to make in the past year. Making matters worse, he missed the first 11 games of the season due to the Canadian Foreign Service strike, which created a backlog in Visa applications.
Since December, however, Valiev “has been very important to our team,” noted McGill, which is not surprising. He has played 28 games during that time, in which he has scored three goals, added 17 assists and recorded a +25 plus/minus.
A mobile rearguard with the physical tools and offensive instincts to succeed at the next level, he has definitely found his comfort zone, playing with a lot more confidence as the season has progressed.
“He understands what the league is all about, and the teaching that has gone on before Christmas into being a good pro has paid dividends,” added McGill.
The prospect of Valiev getting selected at the 2014 NHL Draft after being passed up last year seems to be gaining traction – he was recently ranked 106th amongst North American skaters by Central Scouting, up 35 spots from last year’s final ranking.
It’s not as if he hasn’t been on the radar of NHL teams either; this past September, he was invited to the Dallas Stars’ rookie camp. He has a resume that also includes a number three selection in the 2012 KHL Draft, as well as a three-point performance at last year’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Clearly, he’s caught the eye of many scouts through his career; now, he has to hold their attention.
“All NHL teams want consistency,” said McGill. “And that comes with maturity and understanding the game and getting comfortable.”
And should he continue his impressive run with Kootenay, the Russian, who McGill said “speaks and understands way better than he lets on”, should have no qualms about his draft stock this year.
Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @ChrisRoberts_7