Kootenay Ice defenceman Rinat Valiev emerged from the team dressing room with a welcoming smile spread across his face Monday afternoon.
A smile is a rare thing in the bowels of Western Financial Place these days.
Lost in the excitement of forward Tim Bozon’s return this past weekend was the fact Valiev also returned to lineup after missing the first 12 games of the season due to a lower-body injury. That was reason enough for the smooth-skating 19-year-old Russian to smile Monday afternoon.
“I was excited [to be back],” Valiev said prior to practice. “It was a little bit hard on the ice. It can be hard after surgery when you come back. You feel a little bit tired and slow, but I’m trying to be a good player.
“[You feel] sad when your teammates are all playing and we start not real well. It’s hard to see when the boys are losing. You want to help.”
After winning the first two games on their home schedule, the Kootenay Ice have since dropped two in a row in Cranbrook, the most recent a 9-2 setback to the Calgary Hitmen Friday night. A 4-3 loss in Spokane on Saturday dropped the Ice to a WHL-worst 3-11-0-0 mark through 14 games.
With the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Russian rearguard back in the lineup, the Ice open a six-game home stand tonight at 7 p.m. when the Prince Albert Raiders visit Western Financial Place for the first time this season.
“He’s an unbelievable defenceman,” said forward Luke Philp Monday afternoon. “He plays in all situations. He moves the puck really well. That helps us get on the attack through our transition game and through breakouts.”
Valiev posted five goals and 28 points in 55 games last season, grabbing the attention of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, who drafted the native of Nizhnekamsk, Russia in the third round (68th overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. He showed his value on the offensive side of the puck Saturday night in Spokane, earning his first point of the season with a secondary assist on Matt Alfaro’s third-period goal.
With a captain yet to be named, Valiev joins Philp and forward Jaedon Descheneau, each sporting an ‘A’ on their sweaters.
“We need to work hard as a team,” Valiev said. “Like usual, [if we] play hard, listen to coach [Ryan McGill], we’re going to be fine.”
Listening to coach Ryan McGill seems to have been a struggle for the Kootenay Ice through the opening stretch of the season. After a 5-0 setback Oct. 22 in Saskatoon, the Ice bench boss said it was his players’ deviation from the game plan that cost the team. With two more losses chalked up since then, the question remains as to why this team doesn’t seem interested in following the directions of the coach for a full 60 minutes.
“We’ve had certain guys show up for certain nights and we need everyone showing up every night,” Philp said. “You can’t win in this league if you just have a couple lines going or a couple players going. We need more out of a lot of guys.
“I think guys are ultimately working hard. But sometimes if you’re just working, it doesn’t work out. You’ve got to follow the systems in play. Play the game the coaches have designed us to play so we can have success against the other team. If you stray from that, if one guy doesn’t do his job, it makes it that much harder for the other guys.”
Philp, Valiev and the Ice will look to turn things around tonight against the Raiders. The two teams previously met Oct. 21 in Prince Albert, with the home team squeaking out a 3-2 victory courtesy of 19-year-old Jayden Hart’s third-period winner.
“They’re a hard-working team,” Philp said. “We know we had a battle against them when we were in P.A. the other week.”
Notes: After returning to the lineup for two games this weekend, F Tim Bozon is day-to-day with a lower-body injury…F Jon Martin is still nursing an upper-body injury of his own and expected to miss one more week…F River Beattie tallied his first-career WHL goal back on Oct. 21 when the Raiders and Ice met in Prince Albert…Former Ice F Sam Reinhart earned his first-career NHL point with an assist in the Buffalo Sabres’ 2-1 win Saturday at San Jose…Former Ice G Mackenzie Skapski earned his first-career AHL shutout in a 3-0 win over the Norfolk Admirals Oct. 26…