The Toronto Maple Leafs announced today that they signed coveted Russian free agent, Ilya Mikheyev, to a one-year entry-level contract.
Mikheyev, 24, is listed as a 6’2, 200lbs right winger, although looking at the Leafs depth chart, it seems likely he’ll slot in on his correct side — on the left as a left-handed shot.
Mikheyev has NHL-level traits in a few areas and, as always, we’ll see how he can perform on the tighter confines of the NHL-sized rinks with less time to make plays, more contact, and a much higher level of competition. He’s unlikely to get top-six minutes off the hop and will have to come over with the intentions of perfecting his penalty killing abilities, but there is no one in his way on the left wing on any line and if he finds some chemistry in the top six with either the Matthews-Nylander or Tavares-Marner (barring trades and/or not signing), it is his for the taking.
The Maple Leafs‘ penalty kill was exposed in the playoffs: personnel, planning, and execution are all in need of an upgrade, and there’s more than enough opportunity for Mikheyev to carve out a role for himself on the team out of camp if he can become a key cog on the penalty kill, as we saw with Par Lindholm last season.
The Leafs continue to land free agents with a strong success rate out of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) and the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) largely leaning on scouts like Jim Paliafito, who seems to have a knack projecting overseas players as NHL-capable and even employing Mike Babcock as a recruitment tool: getting to know the player and having an honest discussion with the coach about ice time and usage seems to be a competitive advantage, along with the sway of a name-brand coach that is known internationally.
Nikita Zaitsev is a testimony to be being given ample opportunity and ice time to become acclimatized to the NHL, and the Leafs as an organization have developed a reputation as a European/Russian-friendly organization — with Zaitsev being one of the Russian voices that can help describe what playing in Toronto is like to prospective free agent signings. As with John Tavares when he signed with the Leafs, the talent of players already on the team is always going to be the biggest component in any pitch and the high-octane skill on the roster certainly helps sell that.
If people are wondering how the Leafs are going to make the cap crunch work, this is one of the ways: Rotate in the best of what overseas leagues have to offer on very cheap deals every year with the hope of getting lucky on a player they can keep around for 1-3 seasons, or even (in the dream, homerun scenario) finding the next Artemi Panarin, who ended up being a free star first-line star player.
The contract is “bury-able” and Mikheyev is eligible to be sent down to the AHL without requiring waivers; this is a free look at a potentially useful player that may be able to help in an area in need of an upgrade (LW). The Leafs would like to upgrade on Zach Hyman — especially getting him on his correct hand on the right wing, but they have not found a suitable replacement. Patrick Marleau showed his age in the playoffs and it’s debatable whether or not he is in the mix for 12 best forwards any longer despite his significant cap hit of $6.25m. Andres Johnsson and Trevor Moore are good players, but they cover a lot of the same bases as 5’10 left wingers with some spunk and skill.
Players with size, reach and/or physicality — as long as it’s packaged with requisite skill — is an area in need of an upgrade on the Leafs in order to diversify a forward group that is developing a monoculture of good-not-great, non-physical and/or undersized left or right wingers on each line. Winning these sweepstakes and taking this type of flyer is nothing but positive for the Leafs.
The Maple Leafs are in on Avangard winger Ilya Mikheyev. Here's one of his nicest goals of the year. Shows off his speed and hands on this OT winner against Dynamo. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/KZasdXQYoP
— Austin Owens (@_AustinOwens) April 23, 2019
Ilya Mikheyev Statistics
|Yastreby Omsk||MHL B||5||2||4||6||0||4||||
|Russia II (all)||International||7||3||2||5||0||||
|Russia II (all)||International||2||0||0||0||0||||
From Dobber Prospects:
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
— Dan Milstein-Hockey (@HockeyAgent1) May 6, 2019