Maple Leafs’ Ilya Mikheyev Has Arrived, and in a Big Way

On May 6, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced they had signed Ilya Mikheyev to a one-year, entry-level contract for $925,000. He wasn’t a draft pick, nor did the team have to trade for him. There he sat, for some time completely overlooked and “free” for the picking. For the Maple Leafs, he’s the best kind of prospect, because the team didn’t have to use a draft pick or trade a player to get him.

That was the immediate upside of Mikheyev when he was signed. However, six games into the season, there’s an even better aspect. Mikheyev’s play has flat-out impressed everyone. He’s speedy, skilled, and courageous both on and off the ice. Although he’s new to speaking English, he’s not afraid to be interviewed.

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And, fortunately for him and for Maple Leafs fans, he has the kind of a personality fellow countryman Nikita Zaitsev didn’t. And we know how that turned out. Instead of being intimidated, the relentless scrutiny of the Maple Leafs fan base seems to energize Mikheyev. Oh, and by the way, he loves soup and can’t figure out why Canadians don’t eat more of it.

Mikheyev’s a Babcock Favorite

Head coach Mike Babcock seems to be under new scrutiny for what fans see as his stubborn nature as a coach. However, give Babcock credit: he saw this young player coming. When Mikheyev signed, it was Babcock’s personal touch that made the difference. Although Mikheyev was undrafted, he wasn’t unnoticed. In fact, last offseason prior to his signing, a large number of NHL teams were interested.

Mikheyev chose the Maple Leafs because Babcock had built a relationship with him and had regularly communicated with him over the last year. In addition, other Russian players, such as Zaitsev and former Detroit Red Wing star Pavel Datsyuk, had encouraged Mikheyev to play for Babcock. In the end, the young Russian chose his coach. What a stroke of luck, as it turns out, that was for the Blue and White.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev Tyson Barrie Trevor Moore
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev celebrates his first NHL career goal with teammates Tyson Barrie and Trevor Moore (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Mikheyev is a 6-foot-3, 195-pound right-winger. He’s older than the average prospect, and with more professional experience. At the beginning of the season, he was projected to be a Maple Leafs’ third liner. However, although his body of work is small, it doesn’t take long watching him to see greater potential than a bottom-six role. Plus, as Maple Leafs fans know, Babcock is old school. He likes size and strength. Mikheyev has both.

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After the Maple Leafs were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in round one of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Babcock noted: “I think we’ve got a couple of guys coming that will help us up front, for sure, and make us bigger up front.” It seems he knew the young Russian was on his way.

There’s Showing Up and There’s Arriving, and Mikheyev Has Arrived

The surprise is just how good Mikheyev really has been. In fact, and this is a rare occurrence, NBC’s Rotoworld suggested Mikheyev would make a decent pick up in fantasy pools. Specifically, the site noted, “It’s not often we would recommend a third-line player for fantasy consideration, but Mikheyev may be the exception.” The site suggests that fantasy players should keep an eye on the 25-year-old winger. They believe his start is sustainable because he was a scorer with Omsk Avangard of the KHL before arriving in the NHL.

Bernhard Ebner, Ilya Mikheyev
Russia’s Ilya Mikheyev when in the KHL (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Artur Lebedev)

Mikheyev came to the Maple Leafs with experience. With Avangard Omsk, he played over 19 minutes a game, which was the third-highest workload of the KHL’s top scorers. Plus, he learned the nuances of the North American game by playing under former NHL coach Bob Hartley and playing with former Maple Leafs Cody Franson and Victor Stalberg.

Hartley had Mikheyev play in all situations, including the penalty kill. Such experience was fortuitous, because he’s looked nothing short of sensational killing Maple Leafs penalties. Mikheyev brings strong offensive numbers, but is also responsible defensively with the size and speed to help him win board battles.

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His agent Dan Milstein noted: “On a superstar line, you need to have a guy like (Mikheyev). He plays 200 feet of ice, a guy who’ll go get the puck, support the puck. He’s a power guy who’s going to make everybody else around him look good,” (from ‘Leafs sign Russian free-agent forward Ilya Mikheyev to entry-level deal’, The Toronto Star – 5/6/19).

Is it just me, or does this sound like Zach Hyman with more speed?

Mikheyev Against the Detroit Red Wings

Mikheyev scored a goal and an assist in a 5-2 win over the Red Wings on Saturday night in Detroit. He scored because he was faster than both Red Wings defensemen who were trying to cover him and goalie Jimmy Howard, who was trying to reach the puck first. As both players sped towards the puck, Mikheyev pulled it out of Howard’s reach, went around the out-of-position goalie, and whipped the puck into an open net. With less than a minute left in the second period, it was a momentum changer.

For good measure, Mikheyev also had an assist on Alexander Kerfoot’s eventual game-winner.

What’s Next for Mikheyev?

Mikheyev has a lot going for him as a player. He can start and finish plays. He’s fast, has good hockey sense, and can read a play well.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Maybe Babcock knew what he was getting when Mikheyev signed, but the young Russian has been a surprise to most Maple Leafs fans. He seems able to play anywhere. So far in this young season, he has five points (two goals, and three assists) in six games this season while skating on the team’s third line.

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If there’s an injury or someone isn’t playing as expected in the top six, there’s a good chance – at least until Hyman returns – that Mikheyev could move up to the top six. Because I believe he’s a Babcock favorite, I’m wondering if Kasperi Kapanen’s time with John Tavares and Mitch Marner might be in question. The next few games will tell.