A little under a week has passed since the first day of free agency, and the Toronto Maple Leafs have had a couple of notable names walk as unrestricted free agents (UFAs). While goaltender Jack Campbell has been getting most of the attention since signing a five-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers, they’ve had a couple of forwards leave in free agency as well. The most notable of the bunch being forward Ilya Mikheyev, who signed a four-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks, carrying an average annual value (AAV) of $4.75 million.
Related: 2022 NHL Free Agent Tracker
Mikheyev’s short tenure in Toronto was the definition of up-and-down. He won fans over almost instantly after declaring his love for soup in one of his first media appearances, but soured his reputation with the same fans after it was reported that he had requested a trade following the 2020-21 season. The Maple Leafs, of course, denied the request, citing his importance to the team, and he responded with a good enough bounce-back season to ink a long-term deal with the Canucks.
The Maple Leafs haven’t made any big splashes yet this offseason, but they did sign forward Calle Jarnkrok to a four-year contract with an AAV of $2.1 million – equal term to what Mikheyev got in Vancouver while saving the team roughly $2.65 million per year. While Mikheyev, who scored 21 goals in 2021-22, certainly has more of a scoring touch, they were better off signing Jarnkrok in the end.
How Jarnkrok Got to Toronto
A second-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 2010, Jarnkrok is a hard-working, defense-first forward who spent nearly the entirety of his nine-year NHL career with the Nashville Predators. He made his debut near the end of the 2013-14 season, shortly after the Red Wings traded him as part of a package to acquire veteran forward David Legwand. His career year to date on paper came in 2017-18, where he scored a career-high 16 goals and tallied 35 points in 68 games, good for roughly a 0.5 point-per-game (PPG) rate.
Jarnkrok’s best season production-wise was arguably the 2020-21 season where he finished with 28 points in 49 games, roughly on track for a 44-point season. It was enough to catch brass representing the NHL’s newest franchise in the Seattle Kraken, who selected him from the Predators in the 2021 Expansion Draft. He started off the season with the Kraken the same way he did with the Predators the year before, tallying 26 points in his first 49 games with the club.
With the Kraken clearly out of the playoff race by the time the deadline came around, they traded him to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a second-round pick, a third-round pick, and a seventh-round pick. This is where things got dicey, as Jarnkrok’s production completely fell off a cliff in Calgary, only managing four assists in 17 regular season games along with four points in 12 playoff games. Having said that, his career trajectory shows that his short stint with the Flames doesn’t reflect what he’s capable of over a full 82 games; and if we’re using second-half sample sizes to judge players, then I’ve got some great news for the Edmonton Oilers about Jack Campbell.
Why Compare Mikheyev and Jarnkrok?
Make no mistake, Mikheyev and Jarnkrok are pretty different players on the forefront. The former is three years younger, much faster, and it feels like he’s got some untapped potential offensively. On the other hand, Jarnkrok is a safer player who’s never been known to ooze goals and assists, but you can bank on him for 30-40 points a season. He’s also more versatile than Mikheyev, given that he can play all three forward positions, and has a better hockey IQ.
Last season, the Maple Leafs used Mikheyev in a little bit of a Swiss Army knife role. He mostly took reps on the third line alongside David Kampf and Pierre Engvall, but he was also known to take a shift on the second line here and there as well. Jarnkrok is a very similar type of player; he spent time in Seattle’s top six last season but spent most of his tenure with the Flames centering their third line alongside Blake Coleman.
In signing Jarnkrok, I believe the Maple Leafs are going to be utilizing him the same way they did Mikheyev last season. I think it’s most likely that you will see him on the third line playing alongside Engvall and Kampf, much like Mikheyev did, with the ability to slide into the middle and take some faceoffs or even jump into the top six on occasion, depending on injuries. There’s enough offense to his game that playing him in an offensive role wouldn’t necessarily be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. While I’m sure the Maple Leafs would prefer him in the bottom-six playing a checking role and helping the penalty kill, having a player who can play all throughout the lineup like that is super helpful.
Mikheyev’s Consistency Issues Create Apprehension Around His Deal
When Mikheyev is on his game, he can be one of the most electrifying players to watch. He’s also one of the fastest players in the league and has the receipts from beating Connor McDavid in a footrace to back up that claim. His biggest problem, however, is his consistency. Not necessarily in-season, but over the course of his NHL career in general, as he started off his time with the Leafs with a bang, tallying 23 points in 39 games in 2019-20 before a freak wrist injury held him out of the remainder of the season.
In 2020-21, Mikheyev had a hard time finding his stride and generally didn’t have the same spark as he did the year before. It took him until the 14th game of the season to score his first goal, and he only had three assists during his drought. He finished that season with 17 points in 51 games, and while it would be foolish to criticize his performance without taking his injury during the previous campaign into account, it’s hard to ignore the significant drop-off he had. That eventually led to his trade request, and thus, the Maple Leafs’ rejection of said request.
The rejection seemed to work, as Mikheyev went on to score 21 goals and tally 32 points in 53 games in 2021-22 despite missing the start of the season with a thumb injury. But even then, the Russian winger battled inconsistency during the season. For instance, he started off the season with seven points in his first eight games, then managed only four points in his next 14 games. He then tallied four in his next five, and then went pointless in his next three. He finished the season strong and put up two goals and four points in seven playoff games, but both of his goals were empty netters (in the same game) and he didn’t manage a single point in either of his two previous playoff stints with the Maple Leafs.
Mikheyev’s talent is undeniably there, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him have a breakout season with the Canucks – especially in a role where he could probably challenge for more ice time, specifically on the power play. But having said that, the Maple Leafs are paying Jarnkrok half of what Vancouver is paying Mikheyev for roughly the same offensive production. Gambling on Mikheyev finding that next gear and perhaps turning into a 25-30 goal scorer is something Vancouver can afford to do, but in Toronto’s case, they’re better off going down the road of experience and consistency, both of which Jarnkrok can offer up.
Dubas Should Not Be Done Making Moves
Although the signing of Jarnkrok was a good one and the additions of Ilya Samsonov, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Adam Gaudette will fill roster spots, the Maple Leafs can’t be done making moves. I think there’s still a need to acquire a dynamic top-six winger to complement John Tavares and William Nylander more than anything else. And with the team signing defensemen Victor Mete and Jordie Benn in recent days, the Maple Leafs currently have a backlog of defensemen on the roster. So, a trade feels inevitable at this point.
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With the Maple Leafs pressed right up against the cap, a move to clear out some salary and create some opportunity for spending money seems like the most likely move. Alex Kerfoot and Justin Holl both seem like the most likely candidates to fit this bill, or maybe even Jake Muzzin if there’s a trade to be worked out on that front. Regardless, the Jarnkrok signing looks like it could be a successful one, but the success won’t be properly appreciated unless the rest of the required moves to improve the team are made.