What Do the Toronto Maple Leafs Really Have in Ilya Mikheyev?

Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs denied Ilya Mikheyev’s trade request earlier this year.

Apparently upset with his playing time and role on the team, Ilya Mikheyev requested a trade, but the Toronto Maple Leafs considered him too valuable to lose.

The fans I’ve talked to don’t seem to care too  much for role players who request trades, but there must be a reason the Leafs kept him right?

Not only kept him, but actually seem interested in accommodating his wishes, as he has been listed on the team’s second line with Tavares and Nylander in recent days.

Is this just a training camp experiment? Will Mikheyev beat out other players for a top six role? What do the Leafs have in him? Let’s check it out. (stats naturalsttrick.com).

Ilya Mikheyev and the Toronto Maple Leafs

Mikheyev is a 26 year old player who the Leafs signed out of the KHL.  In his rookie season his speed, tenacity, work ethic and post-game interviews endeared him to Leafs fans.

He scored 23 points in 39 games, 21 of which were at 5v5 which worked out to a solid 2.44 points per 60, which is first line production.  Add in a 53.5% puck-possession rating, and a 53% expected goals rating, and it seems the popularity was justified.

He was in the upper part of the Leafs roster in terms of on-ice shooting percentage, but his percentages weren’t crazy enough to say “oh he just got really lucky.”  His defensive zone starts were roughly equal to Tavares, so he wasn’t playing in too much of a defensive role.

In his sophomore season, Mikheyev scored six less points in 15 more games.  His personal shooting-percentage actually went up slightly, but his on-ice shooting percentage plummeted to the lowest mark on the team, outside of Simmonds and Dermott.

His Cori dropped, but ultimately, his expected-goals stayed about the same – 53%.  In year 2, Mikheyev also started way less in the offensive zone and more in the defensive zone – Keefe used him in a significantly different way in 2021.

His new defensive role, the inability of his linemates to score (and get him assists), and the drop in ice-time by an average of one minute per game contributed to dropping his points per 60 all the way down to 1.29 which is a drop from first to fourth line scoring.

His linemates further explain his drop in production: Mikheyev went from playing mostly with Kerfoot and Tavares, to playing mostly with Engvall and Tavaers……it doesn’t take a genius to see why his production plummeted.

It would seem he had a legitimate complaint when he asked for a trade, since in the NHL players who score get paid and players who play defense do not.

The fact that he played harder defensive minutes and scored less, and yet still came to a 53% expected-goals rating suggests that he might potentially be a really, really good player.   You could argue, based on this, that he improved in year two, but that that improvement was hidden by an unforgiving and thankless role.

If we look at his JFresh Card, we can see that in year one he was good offensively and bad defensively, then in year two he sort of inverted that.   Over a two-year period, his offense and his defense are both just slightly above average, but given the way he was used, I think these are pretty encouraging rankings that show Mikheyev in a better light than he is often perceived.

Given the stats, the Leafs should probably avoid using him in a strictly defensive role because it’s wasteful to use a player who has shown he can score at a first line rate in such a way.  You can see that playing him with Tavares and Nylander makes sense – let him be the defensive conscience on a line whose main job is to score goals.

Additionally, since he probably will never be a strong finisher, if you want points from him, he’s got to play with players who can take advantage of his speed and tenacity and ability to get the puck.

A deep dive into the stats and role of Mikheyev helps to illustrate why the Toronto Maple Leafs wanted to keep him, despite the trade request. Having David Kampf on the roster frees up Keefe to use Mikheyev in a role better suited to his style and abilities.

The fact that the Leafs have Mikheyev, Kerfoot, Marner, Kampf,and Engvall to spell their four x superstar forwards actually gives them way more depth, balance and defensive acumen than they ever seem to get credit for.

Next. Ranking the NHL's 5 Biggest Stanley Cup Threats. dark

I wrote earlier this summer that the Toronto Maple Leafs should have just granted his request, but after looking deeply into his stats and usage, I now believe I was wrong to say that, and hasty to write him off.