Behind Ilya Mikheyev’s last-minute RFA contract with Maple Leafs

Justin Bourne joined Sportsnet Central to talk about the latest news around the Maple Leafs, and why it's not the end of the world for them to be over the salary cap at this point with eight defencemen.

TORONTO – Fewer than 24 hours before Wednesday’s scheduled arbitration case, restricted free agent Ilya Mikheyev and the Toronto Maple Leafs found common ground — although it did mean a last-minute financial concession on the player’s part.

The Russian winger and the club agreed to a two-year contract worth an average annual value of $1.645 million that will see Mikheyev skate in blue and white through the 2021-22 season and walk him directly to unrestricted free agency at age 27.

“Ilya decided to step off a little bit from an already agreed number to help the team fit under the cap,” Mikheyev’s agent, Dan Milstein, told Sportsnet after tweeting news of the signing Tuesday night.

“For Ilya, it was less about the money, but more about the role in the organization. He wishes to win the Stanley Cup. It’s been a lifelong dream.”

Mikheyev’s two-year pact carries a $1.1 million salary in 2020-21 and $2.19 million in 2021-22.

According to Milstein, the sides had initially agreed to a cap hit higher than $1.645 million.

The agent was on the phone explaining the bridge deal’s terms to Mikheyev when the Maple Leafs quickly called back requesting the forward take slightly less so they could be cap compliant for 2021’s opening night.

The Leafs and Mikheyev discussed the sophomore’s position in a winger-loaded roster “extensively” during the negotiations, which had been ongoing for weeks.

“We know what they have going. We know what the goals are. Toronto and both camps communicated very clearly,” Milstein said. “We feel very comfortable about the next season, and Ilya is very excited about the next season as well.”

The 26-year-old Mikheyev — fast a fan favourite — appeared in only 39 games as a rookie with the Maple Leafs in 2019-20, scoring eight goals and adding 15 assists.

Returning for post-season action after suffering a gruesome wrist injury in late December, Mikheyev failed to register a point during the club’s five-game playoff qualification series versus Columbus.

“He would’ve liked to help the team get past Columbus, but overall this was a good first-year experience for him,” Milstein said. “He’s adjusted. He’s adapted. And I expect him to have a better season next year.”

The Russian elected to file for salary arbitration to buy time, and a deadline, for his first North American negotiation.

Mikheyev filed for one year at $2.7 million; the Leafs requested two years at $1 million.

But, Milstein maintains, the strongest efforts on both sides were focused on a two-year pact that would provide Mikheyev and his family a little more certainty in uncertain times and give the Leafs smart value through his RFA years.

The player affectionately known as “Mickey” to his teammates and “Souperman” (or simply “Soup”) to fans stayed up to the wee hours in Russia, where he’s training, in order to finalize the paperwork.

“The first season didn’t go as well as planned, due to the injury, but it was never a question of whether he was coming back or not,” Milstein said. “He stayed up through the night, and we took care of business.”

Milstein has a tight working relationship with general manager Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs.

The agent is quick to note that 12 of his players have been welcomed into the Toronto system over the past three years, including winger Egor Korshkov (currently on loan to Yaroslav Lokomotiv of the KHL), 2020 first-round pick Rodion Amirov, and recent KHL import Alexander Barabanov.

“While we were negotiating (Mikheyev’s contract) and perhaps disagreeing a little bit, I had to stop and talk to (the Leafs) about another player,” Milstein said.

“We try to have good relationships with everybody, but a client comes first.”

Barabanov, 26, will join Mikheyev in trying to secure ice time from coach Sheldon Keefe in a competitive forward group that has added Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton, Jimmy Vesey, Joey Anderson and Travis Boyd since free agency opened.

Barabanov flew to Toronto in early September and is preparing for his first North American campaign on this side of the pond.

Make no mistake: Like Mikheyev before him, Barabanov has his sights in the NHL, not the AHL.

“I feel good about his prospects. He’s a world-class player,” Milstein said. “I’m not a coach. I’m not going to make any predictions. But I feel good about it. You can quote me on that. I feel good about it. Barabanov is an Olympic champion.

“He is a phenomenal player, and I expect him to do well here in North America.”

With Mikheyev signed, the Maple Leafs only need to reach agreements with RFAs Travis Dermott and Anderson.

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