Valiev finding his stride on Marlies blue line

One year ago, Rinat Valiev was getting acquianted with Air Canada Centre, skating on the blue line for Team Russia at the World Junior Hockey Championships, en route to a silver medal.

Now a 20-year-old AHL rookie, Valiev is continuing to evolve into a complete player. While not producing at the near point-per-game clip that he did in his final year of junior with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice, the defenceman uses his 6-foot-2 frame effectively to knock defenders off the puck.

His two assists in the Marlies’ 5-2 win over St. John’s on Boxing Day afternoon represents a single-game high as a Marlie.

“Valiev, like a lot of our young guys, has had really good moments,” Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He’s got a lot of poise, makes plays. I like when he gets invovled and competes – he’s aggressive. He does have the ability to do that, along with a skill game that he has, in terms of how he moves the puck and everything. I’m happy with his progress.”

Valiev has been mentored by his defence partner, Marlies captain Andrew Campbell. The duo has formed an effect shutdown pair for the Marlies, who continue to sit atop the AHL standings with a record of 24-5-2-0.

“He’s a really good player, and a good guy too,” Valiev said of Campbell. “He’s helped me a lot, on and off the ice. He’s a really smart guy and I think we compete really well together.”

Valiev has the benefit of an ally, a fellow countryman, in teammate Nikita Soshnikov, whose empty net goal sealed Saturday’s win at ACC. Although Soshnikov is two years older than Valiev, the junior player has a clear edge in fluency in English. Just as Valiev learns the blue line trade from Campbell, Soshnikov is the pupil to Valiev, when it comes to learning the new language.

“It’s getting better now,” Valiev said of Soshnikov. “He can speak and understand better after a few questions.”

The forthcoming grind of the AHL’s 76-game regular season schedule presents a challenge for Valiev. His career high for games played in one season, including playoffs, is 68. The mark was set in 2013-14 when the Ice advanced to the WHL Conference Semifinals, losing in a tough seven-game series to Medicine Hat.

But just as Valiev preseveres in moving defenders from the crease area, the same tenacity is expected to be exemplified in the second half of the player’s first professional campaign.

“The AHL is a really tough league, and my transition was a little bit tough for me too, but every game I feel better and better,” Valiev said.