Some of you might still be doing an internet search as to who Ilya Mikheyev is, but for those who want a quick reminder, he’s a 25-year-old Russian rookie for the Toronto Maple Leafs and he’s off to a great start for his NHL club.
In 14 games to start the season Mikheyev has registered four goals and 10 points for the Maple Leafs. He’s a plus-seven and is clicking on 11.1 percent of his shots this season. With that, he’s earned the trust of his head coach, Mike Babcock, who has given the rookie just over 16 minutes of ice-time on average this season.
Mikheyev Does It All
While the offence is impressive, his ability as a playmaker and goal scorer aren’t the only two attributes that make him an intriguing player. His speed and puck possession are qualities that simply add to what makes him a player to watch as the season progresses.
“I think there’s a lot more there,” said Babcock, according to TSN’s Mark Masters. “I don’t think his hands have shown, offensively, at all what they’re going to. He’s got a great stick, he’s smart, he picks things up fast, but he’s more comfortable right now without the puck, defensively.”
And Babcock isn’t the only one who has praised this young kid’s game so far this season. Fellow Maple Leafs’ forward, Auston Matthews, also put Mikheyev in high regard.
“He can fly,” said the former Calder Trophy winner in the Masters’ piece. “He’s super fast, strong on the puck, I think probably the biggest adjustment for him was getting on the smaller ice and he’s adjusted really well and been a force for us so far.”
And he has shown the ability to get things done on both sides of the puck. While his 10 points through the team’s first 14 games might be impressive, his play without the puck could be what really helps the team down the road.
He’s blocked shots (4), he hasn’t shied away from the physical aspect of the game with seven hits and his takeaways outnumber his giveaways, which benefits his team’s overall play as well. Mikheyev has registered a 52.8 Corsi For Percentage (CF%) overall over the first 14 games, however his offensive zone starts (37) could contribute to that as well. Time will tell.
What’s even more impressive is that Mikheyev has spent most of his time on the team’s third line – alongside Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen or Trevor Moore. That said, he has had the odd shift with other teammates when Babcock has been forced to mix and match the lines.
So the question is, what makes him a good early season Calder candidate?
Mikheyev and the Competition
For starters, he’s tied for the league lead in rookie scoring with four others. He has 10 points in 14 games – averaging 0.71 points per game this season. He’s tied with Buffalo Sabres’ rookie Victor Olofsson, Colorado Avalanche’s rookie Cale Makar and Vancouver Canucks’ rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes who all have 10 points to start their rookie campaigns.
And while the rookie class in the NHL this season has been impressive and there can be a case made for a number of early-season Calder candidates, what Mikheyev has done in comparison to his co-leaders might be what sets him apart.
Olofsson has 10 points in 13 games for the Sabres this season. Makar has 10 in 12 games and Hughes has the same as Makar. All three have played fewer games than the Maple Leafs’ top rookie, with the same amount of points and yet Mikheyev’s totals have purely come at even strength – a fact worth noting in recognizing what he’s brought to the table thus far.
While Olofsson leads all rookies with six goals, all of them have come on the power play – and eight of his 10 points have come with the man advantage. Makar – who has a goal and nine points – also has six power play points. Hughes – like Olofsson – has tallied a goal and seven assists on the power play, with only two of his assists not coming on the man advantage.
As for Mikheyev, he’s averaged just eight seconds of power play time through his first 14 games, and just over 2:30 of shorthanded time. All 10 of his points have come at even strength and it’s because of that he’s been able to register a plus-seven rating to start the season.
On top of that, his possession numbers are favourable for his team, which has allowed him to benefit offensively and sit fourth on the team in scoring. He has a 55.3 CF% at even strength so far this season and while he has had 57 percent offensive zone starts, he’s registered 36 shots of his own – using his speed to gain the advantage in the neutral zone.
Regardless of how the rest of the season goes for the 25-year-old rookie, he has made a good impression early on for the Maple Leafs. And while he may not have been the favourite – or even a considered candidate – for the Calder Trophy prior to the season, Mikheyev is making an argument to be considered now for the NHL’s rookie of the year award.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.