Ilya Mikheyev, signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs this spring as a UFA, makes his one and only appearance on the Top 25 Under 25. He just barely makes the age cut this year, as he turns 25 on October 10. He is the latest in a list of European free agents the Leafs have signed as they try to make the best possible roster while coping with diminishing draft picks on the high end and a historical drafting record that was terrible for years.

Free Wallets

In 2015, Nikita Soshnikov hit the list at 18th, and he’s in the KHL now, after playing 87 NHL games, most of them on the Leafs.

In 2016, the newly acquired Nikita Zaitsev was ranked sixth by us, and he is now in Ottawa (technically still the NHL) after playing 223 regular season and 18 playoff games for the Leafs. Soshnikov moved up to 10th that year on the strength of nine games the previous season.

In 2017, Soshnikov fell back to 14th on the weakness of his performance in the previous season, and Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen arrived at 16th and 17th, paired in everyone’s minds as the defenders who might play on the third pair. They’ve left the team, paired together in a way, as they were both traded this summer in deals for other defenders, Rosen to the Avalanche and Borgman to St. Louis. Borgman has more NHL games-played, but Rosen might actually have a shot at an NHL job this season. Also that year, Miro Aaltonen came in at 21st, a sign no one was convinced by his single KHL season. He played no NHL games, and is back in the KHL.

In 2018, Borgman had risen to 11th on the strength of half a season on the Leafs the previous year, and Rosen was stuck down at 14th. Igor Ozhiganov and Par Lindholm were too old to be in the T25.

Mikheyev is the lone free agent signing on the list this year, as Teemu Kivihalme was only ranked by one person.

The Leafs have a very impressive success rate at playing the European “free wallet” game, considering just the total number of NHL games played by all of those players. We’re usually at least close to correct on ranking them, as well. We got Zaitsev as the most likely to succeed, and he has. We didn’t buy in on Aaltonen, and he left. We waffled on Soshnikov and while we might have had the order of Borgman and Rosen flipped, we weren’t out to lunch on how low our hopes were for them both.

Ilya Mikhevev - Rankings

Average rank15.25
Lowest Rank24
Highest Rank12
Spread in Rank12
Total Votes16

I’m quoting myself from the profile when he was signed to remind you of what we know of Mikheyev:

Contrary to the stereotype of a player with size, Mikheyev has a career high PIM of 16 in 52 games in his first full KHL season, but he’s scored a lot of goals at all levels. He also scores as many goals as he has assists, and like Auston Matthews, who also shows this trait, he’s always been like this. His KHL ratio is 62 goals and 60 assists in 224 games. His MHL (junior hockey) ratio is 47 goals and 55 assists in 108 games. His points rate fell from .94 per game in junior to .54 in the KHL, which is a fairly normal drop.

Mikheyev is from Omsk, which is 2,500 km east of Moscow, but is home to a good hockey club. He’s played in the Avangard system for most of his adult career, and this past season, moved to Moscow with the team to play in a temporary arena under new coach Bob Hartley. Hartley, the last time he was an NHL coach, was a transition game, high risk, speed-game coach. He put up with a lot of shots against, and his Calgary Flames were unable to generate enough offence to offset their defensive weaknesses. But in his two years as Latvian head coach, and now Avangard’s coach, he’s had a lot more success.

Passed over in the draft, seemingly because he wasn’t in the best position in Omsk (which is in Siberia) to show off his scoring skill either in junior hockey or the VHL, Mikheyev has turned into a top-line winger who is mostly known for scoring his own goals. That’s him up there, second from the right, getting an award from the KHL at the end of last season.

The very big and hearty man, second from the left, is Teemu Hartikainen, and the other very tall man in the blue next to Mikheyev is Mikhail Grigorenko. Also there is Nikita Nesterov, who essentially swapped jobs with Zaitsev, and took his old spot on CSKA. That’s the class of player who dominate the KHL. The trick is to find them when they’re young enough, like Zaitsev and Aaltonen were, and you might find an NHLer who has gone overlooked.

So is that what Mikheyev is, an overlooked player of NHL quality? Our voters are on the fence. We almost unanimously ranked him somewhere, but with a spread of 12 spots in the rankings, that’s hardly a unanimous opinion on his value. If the question being asked when we rank a player is, “What is this one player’s value relative to all the others?” we can’t really answer that with Mikheyev. He’s not an established KHL star like Nikita Gusev, he’s more nebulous a talent. So when we’re asked to rank him, I think the question we answered was really, “What are his chances of success in the NHL?”

This season, we’ll find out how well Gusev will do, as he’s finally about to play for the New Jersey Devils. When he was Mikheyev’s age, he was scoring 71 points in the KHL, not 45, but he was also on the most offensively supercharged hockey team in the modern game. Igor Ozhiganov, who knows Gusev, had this to say about his chances of success in the NHL:

There are many factors. If they put him on with people who suit him, he will play, 100%. And if there is no chemistry as there was in St. Petersburg, then it will be very difficult. He came to SKA, put in the top line [with Vadim Shipachyov, Ilya Kovalchuk or Yevgeni Dadonov], and so they went. And they rode for three years. Although many wrote that Gusev could not replace Artemi Panarin. Similarly, there. He will not spoil the picture of any leading line in the league. Nikita is a game player, his head is cooking and hands are from God. But if the coach invents something, starts to constantly change partners, to palm off woodcutters from the fourth line  [Russian for grinders], then nothing good will come of it. He himself is not very fast.

Ozhiganov could as easily be talking about Mikheyev. There is very little wood chopped on the Leafs fourth line these days, so what a game played down there gives a player is a nice simple set of problems to solve on the ice against very weak opponents. It’s a rest for the an overheated brain, for all it will always be seen as a coach’s punishment. If Mikheyev needs time with someone other than the stars of the Leafs, he can get it and it won’t kill him.

But he’s been a top-line player his whole career. Like Miro Aaltonen and like Par Lindholm. He’s not a lumberjack, and he wasn’t hired to be, but he’s not likely going to be for the Leafs what Dadonov became for Florida. So if he’s going to make it, maybe as a third-line wing on a line that’s neither all woodcutter, nor likely to get dropped in the offensive zone ahead of the better two lines, he’s going to have to adapt his game a little while not losing any of the scoring punch that got him that top line KHL job in the first place. Not a simple task.

This is a little bit overwhelming and mesmerizing to watch, but no wood is chopped here, and few pucks are passed:

Lindholm turned out to be a fairly acceptable depth centre if you wanted nothing to ever happen while your fourth line was on the ice, but even paired with excellent NHLers, he produces no offence. Aaltonen needed to be on a top scoring line, and topped out as a very good AHL centre.

Mikheyev will either sink or swim. He has a European out clause, so any trip to the Marlies has to come with his willing consent. Zach Hyman might miss some of training camp and the start of the season, so If Mikheyev really can seamlessly slide onto the left wing side (better than Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander), then he might have a small window of opportunity to try out his chemistry with John Tavares. But at this stage of the game, he doesn’t quite look like a top-six NHLer for sure.

For an opposing view, listen to Mikheyev’s agent talk:

On average, we guessed he’s got as much of a chance as Rosen and Borgman had to crack the lineup, but we didn’t put him in Zaitsev’s range of likely to grab a permanent NHL job. What’s your guess?