When thinking about how good or how bad a hockey player is, it’s sometimes easy to get caught in the moment or use a small body of evidence to make a decision. That’s especially true when a young hockey player comes into the NHL and sort of takes their team by storm.
And in Toronto, that’s essentially what the Maple Leafs rookie Ilya Mikheyev has done. He’s young; he’s skilled; and, he even likes the spotlight. Those three qualities are really important if you want to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Playing in Toronto is playing in a constant spotlight; it can be wilting – especially for those who don’t have the stomach for it.
I’m thinking of two players in particular when I say that – Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner. Zaitsev let the fans eat him up and erode his confidence. He eventually begged to leave. Gardiner, although he never blinked in public, suffered the abuse of the fans. Both are gone, and I’m sure they are happy to be playing somewhere else. In fact, I’m rooting for both of them to have good seasons.
How Come Canadians Don’t Like Soup?
But there are a few players who simply catch the fans’ hearts and imaginations. Mikheyev is one of them.
One of the first indications that he would be different than countryman Zaitsev was that he actually wanted to do interviews in English. And, although his English was a work in progress, he engaged those interviews face first. He stepped up to the microphone and spoke with a smile. It was endearing to hockey commentators and to fans.
Second, there was some indication that he actually had some personality. Rather than a script of canned lines, it wasn’t easy to imagine what might come out of his mouth. Specifically, during the middle of one interview, he wondered aloud how come Canadians didn’t like soup. He liked it, and he noted that his girlfriend made him happy because she made it for him. Such a simple thing, but it caught the Toronto fan base by a storm, which is the perfect time (in a storm) to have comfort food like soup.
It’s Time to Re-Sign Mikheyev to a Long-Term Contract
One of the things that I have not mentioned and the thing that is most important is that, on top of catching the fans’ hearts and imaginations, Mikheyev is a heck of a hockey player. He’s skilled, he’s fast, he’s big, he’s young, and he’s smart. That’s a lot of positives.
To this point in the season, he’s played 15 games this season with the Maple Leafs and he’s shown that his game translates well from the KHL into the NHL. He’s not only survived in the NHL, but he’s also prospered. He’s good.
So far, in those 15 games, he’s scored 4 goals and 7 assists for 11 points. That’s pretty good for a guy who only recently has played top-six minutes. And, when you watch him on the ice, it’s not as if he’s been getting lucky bounces; he’s working hard and anticipating opponents’ moves. All that translates into on-ice success.
I’ve watched the mood of hockey commentators changing over the past month or so. Specifically, on Oct. 15, Nick Ashbourne, of Yahoo Sports Canada, wrote a post titled “Expectations need to be kept in check for Ilya Mikheyev.” Just over two weeks later, on Nov. 2, my colleague on The Hockey Writers Andrew Forbes, whose work and thinking I value, wrote a recent post titled “Ilya Mikheyev: An Early Calder Trophy Favourite.” I agree with Andrew’s thinking.
For me, the jury is no longer out. General manager Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs organization need to sign Mikheyev to a long-term contract sooner rather than later. There’s no way Mikheyev should not become part of the Maple Leafs considerations past his current one-year contract of $925,000. Mikheyev should be signed for multiple seasons; and, like teammate Auston Matthews did last season, that signing should come during the season.
Babcock had a good sense of what he was getting and courted Mikheyev for two years. He made a special trip to Denmark to meet with the young Russian, who could barely speak English but they “conversed.” Then Jim Paliafito, the Maple Leafs’ senior director of player went to watch Mikheyev play in the KHL – over and over again. And, he got to know the player and his personality.
In fact, Dan Milstein, Ilya Mikheyev’s agent, talked about the Maple Leafs work recruiting his client,
“Every time I was at a game, Jim was at the game. I saw him so much that I thought maybe he’s following me or maybe I’m following him. He was always there. My experience is that other clubs don’t do this, don’t get this involved. They watch. They don’t get to know the person… Jim is the hardest working person in the business, the hardest working person I see everywhere.” (from Steve Simmons “This is just the beginning for Leafs’ winger Ilya Mikheyev,” The Toronto Sun, 10/15/19)
Simmons’ article goes on to talk about how, oddly enough, Mikheyev and Babcock got along well. That relationship continues. As well, Mikheyev’s agent Milstein talks about the 25-year-old player’s love of Canada.
“Every day, you can see him more in the North American mode. He’s walking the streets of Toronto every day. He’s learning the language every day. And he’s loving every moment of it.”
Mikheyev agrees. Before he signed with the Maple Leafs, he had met with a number of teams. However, the young Russian simply noted: “I like Toronto the most. I want to go to Toronto. It’s been my dream.”
How Good Can Mikheyev Become?
Obviously no one knows how good Mikheyev can become. However, I see a number of similarities between Auston Matthews and Mikheyev. I think he can be really good. The early word among hockey writers was not to get one’s hopes up: after all, he didn’t produce much offense in the KHL. However, there are late bloomers, and Mikheyev might be one of them.
A few things I didn’t expect to see from Mikheyev so soon. He shoots the puck. He plays tons of minutes shorthanded. He’s shown speed and a knack around the net. And, he can obviously think on the ice.
On one impressive play, against the Washington Capitals in the first period, Mikheyev came down the wall on his off-wing, stopped, and spotted a trailing Jake Muzzin buzzing through the middle of the ice for a scoring chance. Such are the kinds of crafty, experienced moves this player makes in his first month in the league.
It’s time for the Maple Leafs to flex their financial muscle to gain advantages for next season and the seasons beyond. Mikheyev has been a valuable player so far. He’s not just a luxury for a season, which is the length of his current contract. He’s already become an important player for the Maple Leafs past this season and into the future.
Give Jim Paliafito a lot of credit for his smart move, but also give Mikheyev a longer-term contract.