Maple Leafs’ Mikheyev Must Use Failed Trade Request as Motivation

The beauty of being a Toronto Maple Leafs’ fan is that there’s always something to talk about. And right as the dog days of the offseason began to dwindle with training camp on the horizon, a new topic of discussion presented itself. According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman’s latest article, forward Ilya Mikheyev requested a trade following the 2020-21 season. However, the Maple Leafs made it clear that they intended on keeping him and did not honour his request.

Mikheyev, 26, signed with the Maple Leafs as an international free agent ahead of the 2019-20 season. He impressed in his first taste of NHL action, putting together 23 points in 39 games to kick off his NHL career. He suffered a season-ending injury after a skate blade caught his forearm in December 2019 and had a bit of a down year in 2020-21 as a result.

We all know how it goes when a player requests a trade out of a big market. And for a player like Mikheyev, who struggled in 2020-21 and appeared to be snakebitten for most of the season, it isn’t a good look on the forefront. However, I believe that this trade request could actually work out in his favour this season.

The Definition of Unlucky

Mikheyev quickly became a fan favourite in Toronto upon his arrival in 2019-20. Between his electrifying speed and his shyness when speaking to the media, fans saw a player who just wanted to work hard and help his team win. And when he actually produced during his short sample size to kick off that season, he started winning more and more people over.

But after New Jersey Devils forward Jesper Bratt‘s skate blade caught Mikheyev in the wrist on Dec 27, 2019, everything appeared to go south for him. He was forced to miss the remainder of the season, not hitting the ice again until August 2020, when the NHL play-in series in the bubble began. And in 2020-21, Mikheyev didn’t have that same mojo.

He finished the season with only seven goals and 17 points in 54 games, producing at a far lesser rate compared to 2019-20. But the thing is, he was getting his chances. He just couldn’t convert when he had the opportunity. His shooting percentage was at a disturbingly low 6.5 percent, so when he was getting these chances, they were rarely any notable ones.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this was in Game 5 against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. He had a wide-open net that would have sent the Maple Leafs to the second round in the dying seconds of the game, but the puck bounced over his stick, and Montreal would go on to win the game and the series. It was instances like this that made him so frustrating to watch this season, but the majority of it was bad luck.

Fans Shouldn’t Turn on Mikheyev For the Request

Let me start off by saying that I understand why there’s a negative reaction to this. Obviously, when a player on your favourite team, let alone one who’s struggled like Mikheyev, requests a trade, your first thought is to trade him. Why would the team want somebody who doesn’t want to be there, especially if he’s not producing? And in some cases, this makes perfect sense.

But I have full confidence that Mikheyev’s desire to be traded had nothing to do with the team itself or their treatment of him. According to Friedman, the trade request happened following the end of the 2020-21 season, which would have been when Zach Hyman was still in the picture. He was already stuck behind Hyman and others on the depth chart, and because he wasn’t producing, his ice time was affected because of it.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

You can ride the guy all you want for wanting to pursue an opportunity with more ice time, but it’s hard for me to blame him. He’s only 26 years old, and his only other season besides 2020-21 was a productive one, regardless of the sample size. It’s also worth a reminder that prior to 2020-21, Mikheyev decided to step away from an already agreed-upon dollar value and take less to help the team fit under the cap.

Mikheyev Could Use Team’s Desire to Keep Him as Motivation

You can look at Mikheyev’s upcoming season in one of two ways. He could continue to struggle the same way he did in 2020-21, and the Maple Leafs could eventually honour his request to be moved. Or, he could take management wanting to keep him, combine it with the fact that he’s in a contract year and the fact that there’s less depth on the left side up front, and he could use it as motivation for a bounce-back season.

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Maple Leafs’ brass loves Mikheyev. This is no secret. After he suffered his injury, general manager Kyle Dubas did everything in his power to make him feel comfortable. He spent extended amounts of time with him at the hospital and even went as far as to buy him clothes and other items. For a player who was still pretty new to North America, still learning the English language, and still adjusting to the culture shift, these efforts spoke volumes about how much the team cared about him and wanted him to feel safe and happy in this new environment.

The injury was a massive obstacle in his NHL career. But I’d have to imagine that seeing your GM refuse to trade you and having that sense of security could end up paying off in dividends for Mikheyev. In a previous article, I listed him as a dark horse candidate to play alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. While I doubt he will be their guy all season, I do think he’s going to get more of an opportunity to find his game.

Mikheyev Should Win Fans Over Again

I think Maple Leafs’ fans as a whole do want the best for all of their players. And even the ones who are saying to trade him would probably love to be proven wrong and see him have a good season. One thing to remember is that without his goals, he still helps the team in other ways. He’s one of their better defensive forwards and easily the fastest skater on the team (fast enough to beat Connor McDavid in a footrace, apparently!).

As somebody who’s been a fan of Mikheyev since day one, I would love to see him prove the doubters wrong and come back stronger than ever this season. But at the same time, a trade will probably be inevitable if he doesn’t. He’s 26 years old and wants to make the most of his opportunity in the NHL, so I can stomach his trade request. But, in the end, I think we would all prefer that in 2021-22, we see the 2019-20 version of him instead of the 2020-21 version.

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