The Toronto Maple Leafs locked up their top-nine forwards for the foreseeable future when they inked Mitch Marner to a six-year contract extension. Past Marner, the Leafs also made new deals with Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen. With those contracts done, the Leafs projected top-nine is all signed through at least the 2020-21 season. Such stability makes the Leafs’ forward group the envy of the league, but it does not come without its drawbacks.
For one, a talented group is also an expensive group. The Leafs’ core of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander combine to make just under $41 million a year. This should not be seen, however, as a negative. If a team has that kind of talent, the best course of action is to keep the group together. It just means Kyle Dubas will have to get creative in assembling a group of capable depth forwards made up of young players, relative unknowns, or shrewd contracts with veterans that most teams have given up on. Tyler Ennis provided significant value for the team last year in this exact role.
Though it’s just the preseason, it appears as if the Leafs have found their next great value signing, Ilya Mikheyev.
The Rise of Ilya Mikheyev
Ilya Mikheyev is a name that many hockey fans are likely unfamiliar with. A cursory overview of Mikheyev’s career may concern Leafs’ fans. The forward went undrafted and has spent his entire career in Russia, playing for Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. Mikheyev enjoyed a career-best season last year, scoring 45 points in 62 games. Hardly eye-popping numbers. Still, the effort was enough to pique Toronto’s interest. Mikheyev signed a one-year, entry-level deal with the Maple Leafs on May 6, 2019.
The Maple Leafs have had issues signing players from the KHL before. Just last season, Toronto swung and missed on defender Igor Ozhiganov. Despite this and Mikheyev’s relatively low career output, the Leafs remained undeterred. Many forwards have successfully transitioned from the KHL before, and his career in Russia is less important than the attributes he brings to the North-American game. In the words of Leafs Head-Coach Mike Babcock, Mikheyev “can really skate, he’s very intelligent, he’s heavy on the puck, can shoot it and make plays.”
It’s easy to see why Babcock has such an affinity for a forward that stands 6’2, weighs 198 pounds, and plays an even bigger game than that. Babcock has long favored players with a physical edge, an attribute the Leafs currently lack. Mikheyev is not one to recklessly throw body checks, but he does work hard along the boards, protects the puck, and uses his body to get into the harder areas of the ice. This could make Mikheyev a fit as a player with grit that doesn’t hurt the team in other areas.
Mikheyev’s size, energetic play, and demeanor ingratiated himself with the Maple Leafs’ brass, but he still had to show up on the ice to seize his opportunity. Through the early parts of the 2019-20 preseason, the Russian forward has done just that. Mikheyev has yet to show up on the score-sheet, but he has earned rave reviews from his teammates. Following the Leafs’ victory over the Buffalo Sabres, Auston Matthews compared Mikheyev to a Russian legend, saying “[Mikheyev] plays a lot like Datsyuk…he’s really shifty, strong on the puck…I was really impressed.”.
Past his team, Mikheyev continues to earn the praises of his head coach, Mike Babcock.
Mike Babcock on Ilya Mikheyev: “He’s a good hockey player, I have no question about that. What I liked tonight is he started to protect the puck and roll around a little bit.”
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) September 19, 2019
2019-20 Regular Season
All of this bodes well for Ilya Mikheyev’s chances to make the opening-night roster, but where does he slot in? The most likely spot appears to be on the third line. The first two lines appear to be solidified at Matthews, Nylander and either Johnsson or Kapanen while Tavares will center a line made of Marner and Zach Hyman when he returns. That leaves a third line of Alexander Kerfoot, Mikheyev, and either Johnsson or Kapanen.
Mikheyev may have some competition for a third-line spot with Trevor Moore, but he will play an important role regardless. With all the money tied up in the Leafs’ high-end talent, Toronto management will have to find low-cost players to fill out their depth. If the preseason is any indication, Ilya Mikheyev could be an absolute steal.
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