With Rasmus Sandin returning to the AHL on Monday, it seems like the spotlight in Toronto Maple Leafs land has swung to the next highest-profile rookie in the building, Ilya Mikheyev.
The Russian rookie is big, he can move, and he’s got two goals and three assists in the Maple Leafs’ first six games — the exact same stat line as William Nylander. He’s also got the Mike Babcock stamp of approval. The bench boss has been pretty effusive in his praise of the winger, by his standards at least, telling Mark Masters of TSN the following:
"I think there's a lot more there. I don't think his hands have shown, offensively, at all what they're going to. He's got a great stick, he's smart, he picks things up fast, but he's more comfortable right now without the puck, defensively."
All the elements are there for the Mikheyev hype train to leave the station, but before it does it’s worth keeping a few things in mind.
The KHL record is more solid than inspiring
While Mikheyev’s first six games in the NHL have been a success, his track record in the KHL is far more predictive of what’s to come than such a small sample. In 220 games in that league, the winger has 120 points to show for his efforts. He was far better over the last two seasons with 83 points in 116 games, and last year his 23-goal, 45-point performance represented a career year.
Those are respectable numbers, but they don’t scream impact NHLer. To put them in perspective, in 2018-19 he was 20th in the KHL in scoring. Some of the players ranked ahead of him include:
Matt Ellison: A 35-year-old Canadian with 43 NHL games on his resume after the Chicago Blackhawks picked him in the second round back in 2002.
Linus Omark: A winger who looked like he might be a guy for the Edmonton Oilers nine years ago and wound up with 32 NHL points.
Darren Dietz: A 25-year-old defenceman who was a fifth-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2011.
Mathew Maione: A 28-year-old blueliner who went undrafted and never appeared in the NHL.
There are top talents on the list too, like 21-year-old sniper Kirill Kaprizov, and now-New Jersey Devil Nikita Gusev, but it’s not a group brimming with potential NHL difference makers. To be fair to Mikheyev, he was the leading scorer on a middle-of-the-road team that may not have been packed with offensive talent.
Playing that season at age 24, he was also relatively young compared to most of the players with similar production. That’s an age when the vast majority of hockey players are close to being finished products, though. If he’d produced the same at 20 or 21 it might have suggested another gear, but what you see with Mikheyev is likely what you get.
There is a reason that he was available out of Russia for less than $1 million based on his KHL production.
Early-season stats are deceptive
Even if you choose to evaluate Mikheyev exclusively on what he’s done in the blue and white, the box score stats may be overstating his impact. To his credit, it’s hard to take umbrage with his goals. The one he scored against the Red Wings was undoubtedly a good one — if poorly played by Jimmy Howard — and his opening night marker was a solid finish where he showed good awareness gliding to precisely the right spot on the ice.
His assists, however, have not come as the result of elite playmaking. His three helpers have been on a puck he deflected in front, a two-on-one where he dished the puck at the blue line and played decoy, and a puck thrown at the net from the sideboards that Alexander Kerfoot buried the rebound on. Those are sound plays, but it’s important to remember Mikheyev’s career-high in the assists in the KHL is 22 — albeit in a 62-game season — and he’s not going to be setting up his linemates consistently.
Perhaps more importantly, they won’t be burying the puck at the clip they have so far. Kerfoot and Trevor Moore are plenty competent, but Mikheyev’s on-ice shooting percentage of 16.7 percent is making him, and his whole line, look better than they are. At the same time, Mikheyev has an on-ice save percentage of 94.1 for a meaty 110.8 PDO. Puck luck has been on his side in a profound way, creating the illusion of him being a force. The 25-year-old has a negative relative Corsi, although it’s a touch early to read too much into that.
There’s still an adjustment going on
From dealing with language barriers to adjusting to a different continent, there’s plenty of changes Mikheyev is dealing with off the ice, but even when he’s playing the winger is still getting up to speed. That’s not a criticism, merely a fact about moving between two very different leagues. There have been moments when he’s seemed out of sync with his teammates in the early going, the most obvious being a tendency to go offside that’s cropped up a few times:
Mikheyev’s comfort level should only increase, but it’s worth remembering the extent of the adjustment he’s making before placing the weight of high expectations on his shoulders.
None of this is to say the rookie is a bad player. He’s certainly exceeded expectations to this point. It’s just important to view his performance through a reasonable lens. It’s very unlikely the Mikheyev takes off and becomes one of the Maple Leafs’ best players, or the kind of game changer some are already perceiving him to be. If he were a can’t-miss stud he wouldn’t have come this cheap and debuted in the NHL this deep into his professional career.
Mikheyev is a role player, and he looks like he might be a good one at that. Early returns on his penalty killing, for instance, are rather promising. Often paired with Mitch Marner, he’s been composed and has shown good awareness. Against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he even came close to engineering the Maple Leafs’ first short-handed goal of the season.
As long as the expectation for Mikheyev is that he works hard, kills penalties, occasionally contributes offensively, and provides value on his super cheap $925K contract, he’s got a good chance to deliver. If the bar creeps any higher — like it seems to have lately — clearing it will be a tall task.
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