Ilya Mikheyev has been increasing his workload with trainers and skating more at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ facility as he prepares to return to action in December. He uses an orange puck with very little weight rehabilitating his thumb that he had surgery on last month. That’s good news, but there is a problem, Toronto doesn’t need him.
The Maple Leafs are playing at an elite level. While there is still some minimal tinkering, the team’s forward group seems set. There are several healthy replacements already lined up. Plus, his contract could complicate the team’s roster when he does come off the long-term injured reserve list. So Mikheyev may be out of a job without getting a chance to perform. Let’s explore some options.
Maple Leafs Should Trade Mikheyev
The 27-year-old is on the last year of his contract, paying $1.65 million a year or roughly the equivalent of two Jason Spezza contracts. Putting that money back on the books is going to have ripple effects on the roster.
There are plenty of teams already out of the playoff picture that could use a speedy winger in the future. With Mikheyev on the last year of his contract, this team could be first in line to re-sign him. It could be a bargain if he recaptures the skill he displayed early in his rookie season. Toronto cannot be asking for much in return. Still, they have a severe shortage of picks in the coming draft, having traded away their 2022 third, fourth, fifth and sixth-round selections.
Mikheyev Could Take a Job
Toronto may still give him a shot after reportedly refusing to trade him and promising him a more significant role. Sheldon Keefe is not afraid to change his lines, rarely are they the same. But to do so would mean sitting a guy who currently has regular ice time. As the team has improved, finding that guy has become increasingly difficult. Not to mention, there are other forwards ready to go with Kirill Semyonov and Kyle Clifford.
Pierre Engvall is a likely candidate to take a seat and allow Mikheyev some ice time. But, he has solidified himself with Ondrej Kase and David Kampf, and the third line has been a vital piece for Toronto’s recent success. Moreover, Engvall carries a similar contract to Mikheyev, which may make him the obvious choice.
Wayne Simmonds already took a healthy scratch this season and was not too please about it. But it seemed to work; he has been playing much better hockey lately and has regained that chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that Toronto expects from him. However, his quickness doesn’t match Mikheyev’s, and Toronto is all about speed.
This one might be the most challenging choice to make. Nick Ritchie signed a two-year deal worth $5 million. He was supposed to provide physicality and a net-front presence for the first or second line. Unfortunately, that hasn’t worked out. Despite getting a lot of ice time, he has managed just four assists and has found himself back down the lineup again. Removing him and adding Mikheyev would be a significant increase to the overall speed of the team. Still, it would lose the toughness that Ritchie has provided.
Mikheyev Adds Depth to Maple Leafs
It’s a long season and having depth at any position is critical. Toronto has several forwards that can sub in, but you can never have too many. He could return as a healthy scratch and wait for his chance to help the team. Again his contract will require some movement to get back on the roster, but the accrued savings from his absence and Petr Mrazek’s injury has provided a small cushion.
To top it off, Mikheyev’s nickname belongs solely to Jack Campbell now. Soup cheers are loud at Leaf games whenever Campbell makes a save, making the “Souperman” nickname irrelevant to Mikheyev anymore. However, his new nickname could be Lucky if he can return to the ice and earn a spot on a solid Maple Leafs’ roster.
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Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.