Quick Shifts: Can the Maple Leafs afford to keep Ilya Mikheyev?

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev (65) celebrates his goal during first period NHL hockey action against the Carolina Hurricanes. (Frank Gunn/CP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. I had nine perfect takes ready, but my manager forced me to stop after seven.

1. Nikita Kucherov and his agent, Dan Milstein, were enjoying lunch this week, and the topic of Ilya Mikheyev popped up.

The Toronto Maple Leafs winger has grown into one of the league’s greatest bargains at $1.645 million, but such value is only temporary.

Mikheyev scored his 16th and 17th goals Thursday in a standout performance against the Washington Capitals. He has a career-best 26 points and plus-15 through 45 games, despite skating 15 minutes nightly and starting a meager 36.4 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone.

“Swiss army knife” was the term used at that lunch.

The late-blooming 27-year-old can hang in the top six or boost the bottom six of a contender. He’s a hard worker who can pinch in on a power play and absolutely improve a penalty kill, threatening to score shorthanded.

“He’s one of those guys who every team needs,” boasts Milstein, Mikheyev’s agent. Maybe he’s selling, but he’s not wrong. “He’s just taken his game to the next level.”

Mikheyev’s shooting percentage has doubled from 6.5 to 13.4 year over year, and it’s not just good fortune.

The affable Russian his teammate call “Mickey” is driving to the blue paint, confidently putting himself in better spots before he pulls the trigger – or dekes a hapless netminder forehand-backhand.

“He’s so fast and explosive. He gets a step on you, he’s gone,” Auston Matthews says. “When he comes down on you with that much speed, as a goalie it’s hard to anticipate what he’s gonna do.”

So, what could the impending unrestricted free agent be worth?

Barclay Goodrow scored eight goals and 26 points in 70 games in 2019-20. Blake Coleman scored 22 goals and 36 points in 2018-19. The former signed for six years and $21.85 million as a UFA, the latter for six years and $29.4 million.

On the open market, Mikheyev’s value should fall between $4 million and $5 million annually. Perhaps he’d take a shade less to remain in Toronto or join another legitimate contender.

“He’s going to be OK financially, no matter what,” Milstein says. “He’s just entering his prime.”

His teammates tend to concur.

“The confidence continues to build,” says John Tavares, Mikheyev’s current centreman. “How hard he competes, how driven he is, it’s tremendous to see.”

The elephant in the room is Mikheyev’s reported trade request over the summer.

In speaking with Milstein Friday evening, however, the notion that Mikheyev was ever unsatisfied with the Leafs organization is shot down.

“I don't believe he was ever dissatisfied with the team,” Milstein says. “If anything, he was dissatisfied with his own game. It wasn't with the team.”

So, he likes being a Maple Leaf, then?

“It was never a question,” Milstein replies.

On this, head coach Sheldon Keefe falls in agreement.

“A lot of it really is, Mickey felt he was capable of doing more,” Keefe says. “He’s such an important player for us because of what he does, with his size and his speed and skill set, his ability to play on both sides of the puck.

“He’s stuck with it,” Keefe continues. “We were steadfast as organization that he’s an important part of our team.”

So important that Milstein and Kyle Dubas held preliminary extension talks in the summer, according to the agent.

But once Mikheyev broke his thumb in a preseason exhibition match, putting his top-six and power play ambitions on ice, both sides agreed to table contract discussions until after season’s end.

“It was extremely emotional,” Milstein says of Mikheyev’s second serious hand injury.

Can the Maple Leafs afford this improved Mikheyev next fall, even at hometown discount?

We’ll see. (Rival managers may balk at committing too much term to a winger with under 150 NHL games on his resume.)

The player likes Toronto; the Leafs adore the player.

But just ask Zach Hyman how the business of sport can intervene.

Milstein isn’t getting in Mikheyev’s ear about future possibilities just yet. Now is not the time.

“I don’t want to jinx it,” Milstein says.

Why mess with a good thing?

Mikheyev is producing, defending, and skating at a rate that has Kucherov and plenty others talking.

“I can’t say it’s different. I just try to help team. I just feel more confident, of course,” Mikheyev says. “We build our game and prepare for playoffs.”

And about that newfound scoring touch?

“I have speed. I need to use it,” Mikheyev reasons.

For now, that coveted speed is property of the Maple Leafs. They should ride it as long as possible, because Mikheyev will have options.

“Who knows?” Milstein says. “Maybe I’ll be celebrating a Stanley Cup with Ilya Mikheyev this summer.”

2. OK. So, Jake Muzzin takes six weeks off after consecutive concussions.

That’s fair.


The defenceman comes back, plays three games. Needs a one off. Sure.

Muzzin returns again and plays against Washington Thursday. Now he needs this weekend off after his undisclosed injury flared up.

Muzzin missed practice Friday, as he waits for “things to settle down,” per Keefe. (Not concussion related.)

At what point do we start to worry about Muzzin’s future here?

3. What would you do in Matthew Knies’ shoes?

Would you join the greatest goal scorer of Maple Leafs history and sign on to be a (fringe) member of a Stanley Cup hopeful?

Or would you take another run at college glory, knowing the NHL is waiting for you and knowing another year as a prominent player would give you more confidence when you make the NHL jump?

It’s a fascinating debate, and one that will be coloured by (a) how the Maple Leafs fare this May and (b) how the Gophers fare next season.

My opinion: If you believe you’re not ready, then you’re not ready. No big deal. Take your time. The salary cap thanks you.

Toronto’s playoff fate should be influenced by Knies’ decision by about 0.01 per cent.

How Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and Jack Campbell perform is paramount.

(P.S. If this squad wins a ring – and only if they win a ring — Knies will be kicking himself.)

4. The cap-bending Vegas Golden Knights — loaded up with Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and the untradable Evgenii Dadonov — are going to be a first-round nightmare for the Edmonton Oilers, aren’t they?

5. We’ve spilled more ink over younger brother Nick in this space, but super sophomore Jason Robertson deserves props for his leading the Dallas Stars into the thick of the playoff race.

A Calder finalist last season, Robertson has already doubled his rookie goal total, to 36. He’s now a 70-point man, and his 10 game-winners rank second leaguewide. (Only Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, 11, has more.)

Stars coach Rick Bowness credits Robertson, plus Roope Hintz, for the resurgence of top centre Joe Pavelski, too. Surrounded by smart, energetic wingers, Pavelski has stacked 74 points in 74 games and could finish as a point-per-game player for the first time in his great career.

“I don't think he’s the flashiest player by any means, but when you really watch him out there, his hockey IQ jumps out,” Auston Matthews observes.

“He's always in really good spots. The puck seems to follow him around out there. And I think that line with Pavelski and him, they've meshed really well. He's just got a knack for scoring goals. He gets to the net. He's a big boy, and he's not afraid to go to the dirty areas.”

Robertson has racked up 29 points on the power-play, where he considers himself a bit of a rover.

Asked in a scrum which position he’s most comfortable playing 5-on-4, Robertson replies, “I'm just most comfortable when we have the puck on the power-play.”

The gathered reporters chuckle.

“No. I'm serious,” he counters.

“When we have the puck, I just move around. I don't think there's a specific spot. I mean, I just want to get the puck. I’ve scored probably from every position on the powerplay: net-front, middle, the flanks, maybe even from the top one time.”

Love the confidence.

6. You’ve heard of the optional morning skate. Well, how about the super optional?

During the Stars’ relentless stretch run, where every point brings them closer to extending their season, the staff has begun doing away with mandatory meetings on game-day morning. Should they choose, they don’t have to show up until a couple hours before puck drop.

“This time of the year, it's more important for us to keep our legs and minds fresh. The more you bring them to the rink, and you're pounding video at them, and you practice, it just wears on them. In April, you don't need to be at the rink all day. You don't,” Bowness explains.

“We gotta be flexible.”

7. How wild is this?

Minnesota fans passed the basket to raise funds so that Ryan Hartman wouldn’t have to pay for his own $4,250 fine for flipping Evander Kane the bird.

Imagine donating money so a member of your favourite team — who has earned $12.55 million and counting — can give the middle finger without penalty. Instead of giving money to literally any other worthy cause.

At least Hartman had the common sense to pay it forward:

8. Kenny Rogers was The Gambler.

Frederik Andersen is The Dangler.

9. Tom Wilson is still a pain in the rear end, to be certain.

But the pendulum has swung.

Wilson once hit 187 penalty minutes in a single season (2017-18). He’s now cruising at a career-low 1.34 PIM per game.

Coach Peter Laviolette cites “growth and maturity” as the reason — and sees a correlation between Wilson’s good behaviour and his career-best 24 goals, 52 points and plus-15 rating.

“His numbers have grown every year,” Laviolette says. “He works on his game to be a better hockey player all the time, and it shows with the consistency of his growth from an offensive standpoint through the years.”

Forget the stat line. Wilson’s coach sees his leadership, toughness and versatility as incredible assets to what his veteran group is trying to accomplish.

He’ll argue that Wilson is “a power forward, in the true sense of the word,” and we’ll have no rebuttal.

“He's one of those guys when you watch him in practice, when you watch him in the locker room, when you watch him play the game, everything he does is with purpose and passion,” Laviolette says. “It bleeds through our team, and it's nice to see a guy like that have the year he’s having.”

10. Peyton Krebs is selling me on the Buffalo Sabres future, and it’s difficult to resist:

“We didn’t make playoffs but as a team we made a lot of strides. There were ifs and buts about trades, but as the year went on, we found our identity. These last couple months here we’ve made strides,” Krebs says.

OK. So, what’s the identity?

“There’s no egos in the room. Everybody—first line, fourth line, scratches—gets treated the same way. That shows on the ice. Everybody wants to put the next guy in a better situation. We’re playing for our coaches, our management, and our teammates most of all. We’ll do anything to set that next guy up.”

11. Empty-net strategy has changed drastically.

After watching multiple empty-net goal attempts from the “wrong” side of the red line, I asked Sheldon Keefe how he has instructed his players to approach these 5-on-6 scenarios.

“When I played, we never took that shot,” the coach smiled.

But an influx of data has revealed that a “faceoff in your end isn’t the end of the world,” so Keefe is less concerned about the Maple Leafs gaining the red line before firing at a vacated crease than he is about them getting over their own blue line.

Icings are no longer seen as a precursor to doom.

Gaining the centre line is easier said than done when you’re exhausted and on your heels. Clearing the D-zone at least forces the desperate opposition to regroup.

“That’s the priority,” Keefe says. “If they've got a clear lane to the net and no path to get the red line, I want them to take the shot.”

In other words: Get over the blue? Great. Shoot your shot. (Hey, Rihanna!)

“If you don't take the shot, you might turn it over on your half of the ice, and then you get even more tired. At least the faceoff on your half of the ice is a chance to breathe a little bit,” Keefe explains. “There’s more recognition of that [in today’s game].”

12. Rest in peace, Mike Bossy.

As a wee boy growing up in the ’80s, Bossy was Alex Ovechkin — the greatest pure goal scorer I was aware of.

I won’t attempt to outwrite here any of the beautiful and deserving tributes to the four-time champ who made 50 goals routine.

But it is worth sharing a sidebar tale of Bossy’s participation in the filming of a video for the CanRock charity posse cut classic “Tears Are Not Enough.”

Super-producer David Foster figured there would be nothing more patriotic than recruiting some hockey players to participate in the song, so he rolled camera on Wayne Gretzky and fellow 1985 all-stars at the midseason showcase in Calgary.

“So, we went and got the hockey players, and they were very cooperative. And I was going, ‘Oh, no, if these guys can’t sing this thing, I’m dead… Everybody’s going to kill me.’ We’ve been bragging about the fact that it’s a real easy melody to sing,” Foster told CBC Vancouver’s Good Rockin’ Tonight.

“Well, man, we have video of Mike Bossy [points to neck] with his veins popping, he’s singing so hard. He later confided, he says, ‘You know, I really want to be a singer’. It was fantastic, man. These guys were singing their balls off.”

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