Maple Leafs Sign Ilya Mikheyev: Babcock’s Help Swings the Deal

For the second time in a week, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed a young KHL player to an entry-level contract. On May 6, the Leafs announced that they had signed Ilya Mikheyev to a one-year, entry-level contract for $925,000.

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Interestingly, it seemed that coach Mike Babcock’s personal touch made a difference. Although a large number of teams were interested, Mikheyev chose the Maple Leafs because Babcock had built a relationship and communicated closely with him over the last year. In addition, other Russian players – including Nikita Zaitsev and former Detroit Red Wing Pavel Datsyuk – encouraged Mikheyev to play for Babcock. In the end, the young Russian chose his own coach.

Good for Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas. In one week, he’s made a second low-risk move that could pay off in spades. It also seems to me that at least one part of his strategy is becoming clear.

A Strategy Unfolding?

Dubas seems to be adding cheaper contracts for his middle-six forwards and, from my perspective, he needs to. As Sportsnet’s Rory Boylen noted on May 6, “the Maple Leafs have already committed $74.2 million to just 17 players — which leaves $5.2 million in cap room under the current limit.” That doesn’t leave any space for either Mitch Marner or lumped together, any of the team’s RFAs or UFA considerations.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2018 NHL Draft, Dallas, TX, June 22, 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Dubas has two big tasks over the summer if he wants to sign Marner and/or Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen (as I’ve often noted, Jake Gardiner is gone, so I won’t add him to the list here): First, he must trade away contracts to have some cap flexibility. Second, he has to sign cheap contracts for players who can actually play in the NHL.

Obviously, a number of Toronto Marlies will be moving up. However, those players will, in my opinion, mostly fill in on defense. Dubas has gone to the Russian well again and has signed a second, mature-with-size undrafted player in Mikheysev. At 25 years old, he brings a wealth of KHL experience to the Maple Leafs.

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On May 1, Dubas signed fellow KHL player Yegor Korshkov to an entry-level contract. Korshkov has already played with the Marlies and scored a goal and played physically. That’s two KHL players in a week. It sounds like a strategy to me.

Who Is Ilya Mikheysev?

Mikheyev is a six-foot-two, 194-pound right-winger and, at his “advanced age” and with his experience, he might be able to fit in on the Maple Leafs’ third line. Obviously, Babcock is old school and a fan of size. Both Korshkov and Mikheysev have size.

As Babcock noted just after being eliminated by the Boston Bruins (who moved past the Columbus Blue Jackets into the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Monday night): “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 was confident the two young, but not-too-young, Russians were coming.

Mikheyev has a ton of experience and is a proven scorer. With Avangard Omsk, he averaged over 19 minutes a game, which was the third highest workload of the KHL’s top scorers. Plus, I imagine he brings a sense of the North American game because he played under former NHL coach Bob Hartley this season and alongside former Maple Leafs Cody Franson and Victor Stalberg.

Under Hartley’s coaching, Mikheyev played in all situations, including on the penalty kill. In short, he has good offensive numbers but is also reputed to be a responsible defensive player who’s big enough to win board battles.

Related – Maple Leafs News: Korshkov, Rielly, Rosen & Salary Cap Fixes

Mikheyev’s offense has improved in each of his KHL seasons. This season, he tied for 20th in scoring, with 23 goals and 22 assists. 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).

The Dobber Prospects Notes

After his signing yesterday, the Dobber Prospects Site noted:

May 2019 – Mikheyev has signed a one-year entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs. Mikheyev is capable of jumping straight to the NHL but the Leafs have a good amount of forward depth, so it remains to be seen if he can earn a spot on their roster in the fall.  Jokke Nevalainen

November 2018 – Mikheyev is arguably the best free agent in Europe this season. His KHL contract expires in the spring, and there should be plenty of NHL interest at that point. The 24-year-old winger is a dual threat because he can both make plays and finish them. He has good acceleration and good top speed. His hockey sense is very good as well. He does a good job using his size to protect the puck and win puck battles along the boards. He can also throw the occasional hit but isn’t known for that style of play. Defensively, he uses his hockey smarts for good defensive reads. He’s a good back-checker, and a capable penalty-killer as well. Mikheyev’s counting stats in the KHL may not look all that impressive but he plays for a low-scoring team, and he’s arguably the best offensive player on the Omsk roster.  Jokke Nevalainen

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Seems Like Good Signings

Mikheyev is a young winger with size and experience who has been growing as a scorer. In addition, the Maple Leafs added him for what amounts to pocket change. By signing fellow Russian KHL player Korshkov, the team now has two potentially solid middle-six wingers to add to the roster for less than $2 million.

Assuming Mikheyev and Korshkov make the big club, the Leafs roster will also have more size. Although who knows how these young players will adapt to the North American game, they should bring more offense as well.

As it stands now, even if the Maple Leafs sign no one else, they still have John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, Zach Hyman, and Morgan Rielly to carry the scoring. That’s a pretty good NHL team.

By the way, Mikheyev typically wears Mario Lemieux’s #66. We can hope that’s a good sign.