The 411 on Ilya Mikheyev, the newest Toronto Maple Leafs winger

Germany's Sebastian Uvira and Russia's Ilya Mikheyev fight for the puck. (Artur Lebedev/AP)

Looking at Toronto’s cap picture for next season, they have already committed $74.2 million to just 17 players — which leaves $5.2 million in cap room under the current limit. That could rise to $8.7 million if the salary cap climbs to its highest projection, but that still likely doesn’t leave enough room for even RFA Mitch Marner, never mind their three other RFAs or UFA considerations.

So, Toronto has to figure some things out this summer. Luke Fox explored five ways the Leafs could create some cap space — including putting Nathan Horton’s $5.3 million on LTIR, which it wasn’t in 2018-19.

One of the best ways to get the necessary cap space, though, is to find capable players on cheap, affordable contracts. Some of that could come from the Toronto Marlies, but the Maple Leafs also turned to Russia, just as they did last year in signing Igor Ozhiganov to an entry-level deal. This year they signed another undrafted player to an ELC: Ilya Mikheyev, who will be 25 years old next October.

Toronto was always the favourite, but not the only team in the running.

“I wrote in the notes that my Russian guys were telling me that Mikheyev was going to be a Leaf,” Elliotte Friedman said on the most recent episode of the 31 Thoughts Podcast. “The one thing I was told is that I think Vegas and Chicago are still going to pitch him, but he’s Toronto’s to lose.”

The belief is that the six-foot-two, 194-pound right winger could step right into the NHL next season, but he’s jumped on to the radar seemingly out of nowhere. So who is Ilya Mikheyev? Here are some things to keep in mind.

MIKE BABCOCK IS A FAN

The No. 1 takeaway from the Maple Leafs’ exit meetings was the working relationship between coach and GM. While Babcock talked about fighting an adjustments battle with the Bruins in the playoffs and the need to still add more depth to the roster, GM Kyle Dubas took full blame for another early exit, though gave no guarantees to anyone in the organization.

What is clear is that the two have different opinions on the types of players needed to fill out a successful roster. Babcock has a more old-school tinge to his preference, while Dubas leans more towards new-age thinking. Can those ideas co-exist for the long-term? That’s the storyline to watch in Leaf Land this summer and through next season.

“I think we’ve got a couple of guys coming that will help us up front, for sure, and make us bigger up front,” Babcock told the media in Toronto’s end-of-season press conference.

The prevailing thought was that he was talking about at least one of these two players, if not both: Egor Korshkov, a six-foot-four right winger taken in the second round (31st overall) of the 2016 draft who the Leafs signed last week. And Mikheyev, an six-foot-two right winger.

Mikheyev isn’t a crasher and a banger necessarily — he was only credited with 28 hits in the KHL’s regular season and 15 in the playoffs. But he does have good size and was leaned upon heavily by his Avangard team this season. Mikheyev’s average of 19:06 per game in the regular season was the third-heaviest workload of any of the KHL’s top 20 scorers.

HIS STOCK AS A SCORER HIS ON THE RISE

With a late birthday (October), Mikheyev was draft eligible for the first time in 2013, a season in which he played 52 games for Omskie Yastreby in Russia’s MHL, which is their version of major junior. Four players were drafted into the NHL that year who spent time in the MHL in the same season: forwards Pavel Buchnevich and Bogdan Yakimov, both third-rounders, overage goalie Kristers Gudlevskis in Round 5, and defenceman Rushan Rafikov in Round 7.

The two forwards draw the best comparison to Mikhayev. Yakimov is also a late October birthday, but most of his draft season was actually spent in the VHL, which is a step below the KHL. He played 11 games in the MHL and posted 13 points, then after his draft year Yakimov became a near full-time KHLer.

Buchnevich scored 23 points in 24 MHL games and even got two points in 12 KHL games with Severstal Cherepovets. He also finished second in scoring at the U-18 world juniors with 11 points in seven games, behind only Connor McDavid. The following season, Buchnevich was a full-time KHLer and point-per-game player at the WJC.

Mikheyev spent more time than either of these two in the MHL for his draft year, scoring 31 points in 52 games, and it was the highest level he played that season. He even returned to the MHL the season after, finishing fifth in league scoring. Two years after his draft year Mikheyev graduated to the VHL, scoring 16 points in 49 games, and didn’t become a full-time KHLer until three years after his NHL draft season.

But since getting there his offence has improved with each season. This year he finished tied for 20th in points (45) and sixth in goals (23) league-wide.

Mikheyev played under Bob Hartley in Omsk this season and, maybe something that peaks Babcock’s interest, was played in all situations including on the penalty kill. While his offensive numbers have improved, he is also regarded as a responsible player on the defensive side of the puck. Although he’s not a big hitter, he uses his body well to protect the puck and win board battles.

HE HAS AN INTERESTING JERSEY NUMBER

You don’t have to look too far back to find an NHL player who wears the same jersey number as Mikheyev did in the KHL — and the reaction to that makes us wonder if the Russian will have to change his by the time he arrives in Toronto.

When New York Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang stepped on to an NHL ice surface in 2017 wearing the No. 66, he received a lot of backlash on social media for “disrespecting” one of the most iconic numbers in NHL history. Unlike Wayne Gretzky’s 99, Mario Lemieux’s 66 is not retired across the league and, of course, he never played for the Islanders either. For his part, Lemieux said he didn’t have an issue with it and Ho-Sang downplayed it as well.

“It’s no disrespect,” he said. “If anything it’s the ultimate respect.”

Mikheyev wore No. 66 in the KHL and internationally. We wonder if the Leafs will want their newest addition to deal with the same blowout if he hits the NHL with Lemieux’s number on his back. No player in Leafs history has worn the jersey number before.

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