Maple Leafs Should Consider Trading Ilya Mikheyev

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Related: Toronto Maple Leafs Need to Sign Ilya Mikheyev Long-Term

One of the things I’ve noted recently is that there seems to be a movement afoot among Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans that Ilya Mikheyev should be traded. Although his salary-cap hit seems like a measly $1.65 million, there’s a group of fans who’ve come to believe that, after two tough seasons, he just hasn’t performed well enough to warrant keeping him around. In fact, three days ago, Editor in Leafs’ Stephen Nixon suggested that Mikheyev should be one of three players on the Maple Leafs’ trading block.

To Be Clear About Where I Stand

To be clear, I’m of another mind. I believe Mikheyev is a well-trusted Maple Leafs’ player who’ll one day might be Selke Trophy worthy. In fact, I think he’s ready to put together a strong 2021-22 season where he could score 20+ goals. I’d predict that to be the case – except for the fact that head coach Sheldon Keefe keeps throwing Mikheyev over the boards in a variety of difficult situations.

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

Not that the 26-year-old Russian shines in all those situations, but who would? Still, to me it suggests he’s so darn trusted by the coaching staff that he’s put into the most difficult situations of any forward on the team. That doesn’t help his numbers at all.

Sportsnet’s Justin Bourne noted in an article last season, Mikheyev’s “been handed a damn tough assignment this season (which in itself shows the team trusts him) and (has) done fine with it.”

Bourne continued that Mikheyev’s “been handed a lot and is mostly losing the statistical battle in those minutes, but someone’s gotta muck the barn so the farm can run smooth.”

Taking Calls to Trade Mikheyev Seriously

Still, laying my bias aside, I want to consider the question about whether Mikheyev should be traded. Let me start with a little history. Mikheyev’s been a KHL success story, which doesn’t always happen to players signed from the KHL. In that, Mikheyev has been an exception.

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He also plays a “Canadian-style,” which most fans love. By that I mean that he works hard all over the ice. He’ll play strong defense. He’s a disruptor, who skates like the wind. He’s also a physical player who’ll hustle to the net; and, on top of all that, he’s not ripping the team off with his salary. Canadians like me love that about him. [Ask Mitch Marner what it feels like to be overpaid.]

It’s also tough not to like a young man with an engaging personality who isn’t afraid to speak in halting Russian and English. He took Toronto fans by storm early with his innocent questions about why Canadians don’t like soup. As well, how can you not feel sorry for him after he suffered a horrifying skate-sliced wrist injury and had to work hard to recover? He’s come back from that injury, although perhaps not fully, but well enough to play and contribute.

Mikheyev’s History with the Maple Leafs

In Mikheyev’s rookie season (2019-20) season, he started well by scoring eight goals and 23 points in 39 games. But the December wrist injury brought his game to a complete stop and stalled his growth. That injury forced him to miss half the 2019-20 season; but, until that injury Mikheyev was on-pace for a 16-goal season. For an NHL rookie coming from the KHL, those numbers were promising.

After his first-season injury, Mikheyev came back for 2020-21 but only scored 17 points in 54 games. However, he played effectively, except for one part of his game. He just couldn’t put the puck in the net. It seemed that his great defense, especially on the penalty kill, created at least one breakaway every game. But he wasn’t often able to actually push the puck past the goalie.

Mikheyev was getting his chances, but it took him a month to score his first goal. His shooting percentage was horrid. In his rookie season, he played 39 games and scored eight goals on 98 shots (for an 8.2 shooting percentage). However, in 54 games last year, he scored seven goals on 107 shots but his shooting percentage dropped to 6.5 percent.

Is Mikheyev’s Shooting Percentage an Issue?

That shooting percentage seems to be the core of Mikheyev’s problems. Sportsnet’s Dimitri Filipovic reports that most NHL players average between 10 and 11 percent and that “the league average conversion rate for forwards tends to hover somewhere between 10 and 11 per cent in a given campaign.”

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Part of the reason Mikheyev’s shooting was about half the average was because he played on a defensive shutdown line where there wasn’t much emphasis on scoring. I have to believe that, if Mikheyev’s role to create more offense, he’d likely do better. But who knows?

I also have to wonder if his wrist, which is likely fully-healed structurally, is as good as it will this season and will be in the future. I’m guessing it isn’t. But, again, who knows?

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev Alexander Kerfoot Morgan Rielly Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev, centre Alexander Kerfoot, defenceman Morgan Rielly and defenceman Rasmus Sandin celebrate a goal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Most hockey pundits believe his shooting percentage should average upward as his career advances. Still, that too is speculation and perhaps Mikheyev’s shooting percentage will always be lower than average throughout the remainder of his career. Still, shooting seems to be one area where practice makes perfect; and, you have to believe the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff knows that and is dedicated to helping Mikheyev improving.

Imagine a Mikheyev with a Higher Shooting Percentage

If you’re a Maple Leafs’ fan, can you imagine the excitement Mikheyev could bring to the arena if he could double his shooting percentage? Given practice, greater opportunities to play in offensive situations, and a return to complete physical health for his wrist (here I admit I’m guessing from my own experience with injuries), some of those many breakaway chances could soon start hitting the back of the net.

As I’ve noted to start the post, recently I’ve encountered a push to trade Mikheyev. Surely that would be possible. His $1.65 million salary-cap hit is far from onerous. His speed and defense are attractive, and there’s little doubt many other NHL teams would jump at the chance to pick him up and put him to work – in situations similar to how the Maple Leafs utilize him.

So, What’s the Answer? Should the Team Trade Mikheyev?

The one fly in the ointment is Mikheyev’s expiring contract. He’ll become a 27-year-old UFA at the end of the season. Given the team’s salary-cap issues, there’s a chance the team fears losing him for nothing – much like the organization has done with other internal rentals.

Given all these things, should the Maple Leafs trade Mikheyev now? The key hinges on whether the organization believes Mikheyev is part of its future plans. He’ll likely deserve and command more money on the open market. Ergo, if he doesn’t fit the Maple Leafs’ long-term future, this might be the time to move him.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Mikheyev Arbitration Could End Badly

Given that Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas already has the incumbent Pierre Engvall and recently signed Michael Bunting and Nick Ritchie as potential left-wingers, it might be that Mikheyev’s days are numbered. As I noted, $1.65M doesn’t seem like a lot, but if Bunting can play in Mikheyev’s spot for $700,000 less that could be a big enough difference.

The bottom line for me is that, although I hope Mikheyev isn’t traded, I also don’t want him to become another internal rental. If he isn’t part of the team’s future, it is probably time for him to move.

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