What can we make of Ilya Mikheyev’s interesting 2020-21 NHL season?

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe discusses all the many ways that winger Ilya Mikheyev has improved and is producing for the team, even though goal production hasn't been there, but he is hungry to produce in that respect too.

Toronto’s a tough city to be a pro athlete who plays regularly but doesn’t put up numbers, particularly a pro athlete of the hockey variety. The Leafs regularly get dissected crudely and quickly like a frog in high school biology, which leads us to algebra class, where the equation is something like A (no boxcar stats) + B (regular time on ice) = C (booing of said player).

Yet somehow the public verdict on Ilya Mikheyev seems to be that he’s passing all the tests.

There are no boos or calls for trades or demotions, and frankly, everyone I hear would be just fine if they ran him out there regularly with any combination of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, or William Nylander. I think it’s fair to say he’s generally beloved by the team, fans and media.

Part of that for sure is that he plays a style that endears him well to Canadian fans. He works hard with the dial always set to hustle, he’ll play physically, he’ll go to the net, and just for the eye test, he’s got size. He’s also got the distinct advantage of not being overpaid, which from a perception standpoint might be the greatest sin one can commit up here.

Tack on that Mikheyev doesn’t have command enough of the English language (not quite anyway) to say anything anyone dislikes, and you’ve put together a pretty likeable package.

(That what he has said has been charming enough to earn him advertising time as the Soupman - which in itself is pretty hilarious - only furthers his likeability. Honestly, most people seem to like the idea of Ilya Mikheyev more than they know the man himself.)

But Mikheyev is playing the most of any Leafs forward at 5-on-5 outside the top-6, and he’s turned that into two goals and four assists through 23 games. (Not great, Bob.) There are other positive ways to spin that. He’s right where he should be in shots (behind just five Leafs in attempts), while putting up a stunningly poor/unlucky shooting percentage of 4.7 per cent. More goals will come if he just plays the way he’s been playing. But still, that’s pretty light output for a guy playing real minutes on a good team in a soft division.

So, what’s the verdict here? Has he been disappointing, has he been invaluable, what are we to make of a season where the guy’s results look relatively poor but the team – who’d have a better sense of his contributions than the rest of us – continually chooses to throw him over the boards?

The conclusion for me is basically that he’s been handed a damn tough assignment this season (which in itself shows the team trusts him), and done fine with it. He’s good defensively and great on the PK. I know it’s disappointing the answer isn’t “give the guy the Selke” or “get him off the rink,” but that’s where we’re at. He’s been handed a lot, and is mostly losing the statistical battle in those minutes, but someone’s gotta muck the barn so the farm can run smooth.

As of Wednesday, Mikheyev has been handed the toughest situational starts of any player on the Leafs at 5-on-5, and it isn’t close. On just 36.5 per cent of his shifts does he get to start in the O-zone. Here’s his player usage chart, via Dobber Hockey’s Frozen Tools, which contains a lot of information, but here we’ll focus on the axis that shows him starting in his own end (and against pretty decent competition compared to most forwards).

It’s ol’ Ilya and the rest of the team, as you can see there. Also, congrats to Travis Boyd on the other end, who Mikheyev surely envies a great deal.

You’ll also note that Mikheyev's little circle is just about red, which is reflective of where shots have generally gone when he’s on the ice. By just about every shot attempt metric, it hasn’t been pretty. In sum, he starts in his own end, more pucks end up at the Leafs net than the other one (as you’d expect), and so again, he’s not over or underperforming his assignment, really.

Why I think he’s worthy of conversation, though, is because he’s one of the few players on the Leafs who, to my eye, will give them more as the season goes on. Part of what’s hurt him, on top of the O-zone start percentage, is the team using him as a “can go anywhere” band-aid type player. Top-six, bottom-six, with anyone, they don’t hesitate to hand him new challenges, which means he has roughly zero consistency with his linemates, and no chance to find chemistry.

A normal player will see a big chunk of their ice time with the same linemates, followed by a smattering of smaller percentages with other linemates as the weirdness of a hockey game dictates. For example, here’s who Auston Matthews has spent the bulk of his time with at even strength this season. Two groups make up two-thirds of his time on ice, before it drops into smaller percentages (I cut it off at five groups). You can safely say he’s spent the year with Marner and one of Hyman/Thornton almost every game.

Conversely, here’s what Mikheyev’s minutes look like, which have seen him spend no more than about 23 per cent of his time with any consistent line this season.

The top line is a nice one, but after that it’s kind of a grab bag.

So to get back to how this all turns even more positive for Mikheyev, I know Sheldon Keefe well enough to know he likes to experiment with his roster (call it research), and being in first place allows him to do as much of that as he wants. The team has a lot of forwards this season, having used as many as any team in the league, and they want to evaluate all of them. But come playoffs, and even closer to playoffs, lines will crystallize if they’re healthy. That will work in Mikheyev’s favour.

His forecast then is more consistent linemates, and I’d predict a slightly elevated O-zone start rate (if nothing else, it won’t drop lower than 36.5 per cent). And the things he does will continue to dictate that he’s worthy of playing consistent minutes, because what line couldn’t use a quality defensive player who can forecheck with a good stick and who’s positionally sound all over the rink?

Watch how good he is at using that long stick for disruption, which is a great attribute that’s become more valued over the years. You’re never safe with the puck anywhere within a 15-foot radius of this guy’s wingspan. He gets above his check, and when he isn’t, he’s able to reach into lanes. It’s all really good stick work.

I see a player who brings consistent effort and does so much right, who’s been handed a tough combination of zone starts and inconsistent linemates. And none of this goes into his contributions on the penalty kill, where his expected goals rate is above 25 per cent, meaning that of every four goals scored while he’s on the ice shorthanded, one should be going in for the Leafs (without beating this dead horse too much, his shooting percentage will regress to average here and he’ll get a couple). That rate is in the top-five for NHL forwards who kill with any consistency, which has huge value on a team not overflowing with penalty killing forwards.

Even with some of the poor shot attempt metrics for Mikheyev, he’s a huge part of the Leafs up front. He’s one of those guys you don’t really appreciate until he’s not there to do the dirty work. But it’s only a matter of time until his boxcar numbers better reflect the value he’s brought in 2020-21, and until then, you can see the value reflected in how much the team continues to use him.

After all, it’s tough to impress people with your show ponies if the barn isn’t sparkling clean.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.