Maple Leafs’ Mikheyev Deserves to Stay in the Top 6

The Toronto Maple Leafs walked away from the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline having addressed one of their biggest needs. If you were to come up with a list of areas they could have used upgrades in, goaltending, defense, and their top-six forwards would probably come to mind. They solved the need for defence by adding veteran Mark Giordano in a trade with the Seattle Kraken and made the gutsy decision to hold off on adding a goaltender in hopes Jack Campbell would rediscover his early-season form upon returning from injury.

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That leaves the need for a top-six winger. This wasn’t necessarily an upgrade the Maple Leafs needed, per se, but it certainly would have helped. John Tavares and William Nylander have each battled their own inconsistencies this season, with Nylander even seeing reps on the third line, and the remaining spots on the wing have been a revolving door at times.

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

For the past little bit, head coach Sheldon Keefe has been experimenting with multiple different line combinations and defensive pairings, and Ilya Mikheyev and Alex Kerfoot have been skating on the second line alongside Tavares. This is normal, but once the Maple Leafs get closer to the start of the playoffs and begin to shore up their lines, they should be looking to keep Mikheyev on that second line assuming Nylander is eventually reunited with Tavares.

Mikheyev Backing Up Reasoning for Trade Request

The stretch from December 2019 to the end of the 2020-21 season was a nightmarish one for Mikheyev. After starting off hot with the Maple Leafs in 2019-20, a skate slash to the wrist in a game against the New Jersey Devils shortly after Christmas caused him to need wrist surgery and miss the rest of the season. Then, in 2020-21, he seemingly lost his entire scoring touch. Eight goals in 39 games in 2019-20 turned into seven goals in 54 games the following season, and he didn’t score his first goal of the year until the 14th game of the season in 2021-22.

After the 2020-21 campaign ended, it was reported that Mikheyev had requested a trade. Mostly for a fresh start, but also because he wasn’t happy with the ice time he was getting. That obviously left a sour taste in Maple Leafs fans’ mouths. And honestly, why wouldn’t it? Nobody wants to hear about a player that doesn’t want to play for their favourite team anymore.

But general manager Kyle Dubas vetoed the trade request, and both he and Keefe expressed their desire to keep Mikheyev in Toronto. Although his season started late due to a thumb injury sustained in the preseason, he has turned into a completely different player. He has 15 goals and 24 points in 44 games and has turned into a force at both 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. With Nylander getting looks on the third line more recently, he’s been a staple on the second line with Tavares and Kerfoot.

Mikheyev is one short of the league lead in shorthanded goals with four on the season, and he’s a large part of the reason the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill has seen such an improvement this season. At this point, it’s looking like losing him at the end of the season will hurt the Maple Leafs more than it will hurt him, which is probably the best thing he and his camp could have asked for after they denied his trade request. But beyond the business standpoint, his rebound campaign has gone just about as well as they could have hoped it would.

Mikheyev’s Speed Would Be a Welcomed Presence on the Second Line

I feel like I should clarify now, that even though it’s heavily implied, my case is that Mikheyev’s role on the second line should become permanent. The top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Michael Bunting likely won’t be touched again for the rest of the season, barring a huge slump from one of those three players.

Anyways, we’ve talked about the inconsistency coming from the pair of Tavares and Nylander, and if the Maple Leafs’ plan to reunite the pair for the playoffs comes to fruition, Mikheyev could be the perfect fit to help them hit the ground running. While Kerfoot is having a better season offensively on paper, I feel like his time alongside Tavares and Nylander has sort of run stale this season. And that’s not a knock on Kerfoot at all. He’s good enough defensively that he could be just as good a fit in the bottom six.

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However, Mikheyev’s speed and tenacity could be just what Tavares and Nylander need. It’s no secret that Tavares is one of the slower players on the team, and while Nylander is one of the better skaters on the team, he’s not the type to put his head down and gun it into the corners on the forecheck. Mikheyev would be perfect for that sort of role, and he could also serve as a nuisance in front of the net too.

Between his defensive awareness, his speed, and his newfound ability to finish, I believe Mikheyev has played well enough this season to get a serious look in the top six. It takes a lot of guts to request a trade due to the lack of ice time he had last season, and to his credit, he’s done a great job of backing up his words. At this point, I think the second-line left-wing spot is a role he’s earned with his play this season.

Maple Leafs Have Lots of Options For the Top 6

The beauty about where the Maple Leafs are at right now is that they have a lot of different combinations and pairings to work with. We’ve seen everybody from Mikheyev, to Kerfoot, to Ondrej Kase take reps on that second line. Hell, even newly-acquired Colin Blackwell would be worthy of a look. But as it stands right now, I believe Mikheyev is most deserving of that opportunity on the second line.

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There’s certainly a temptation to put Mikheyev back on that third line which did so much damage with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall, but as I said earlier, there are other players who can make up for Mikheyev’s defensive awareness on that unit. Whether or not Keefe even decides to go back to Tavares and Nylander together on the second line, I have no idea. But, what I do know is that those two players are more than capable of getting back to a higher level, and if they return to that, Mikheyev should be the guy to skate with them when it happens.

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