To say that Ilya Mikheyev‘s rookie season was eventful would be putting it lightly.
He began the season by taking a selfie with Mike Babcock near a gas station, scored his debut game, and then expressed confusion over why Canadians didn’t like soup. His role and value to the Leafs grew as the year progressed, got more comfortable on North American ice, and improved his play after the coaching change. By all accounts, he was on track to post solid numbers and play a factor in the team’s success.
It all came to a screeching halt during a December game against the New Jersey Devils where Mikheyev’s wrist was cut open by Jesper Bratt’s skate. Prior to this, he had registered 8 goals, 15 assists, and 23 points in 39 games. His season appeared to be over and his career was in jeopardy. While his teammates struggled to fill the void in his absence, he quietly healed and worked on his craft once his wrist recovered. The pause gave him a chance to fully regain strength and improve on the ice, providing him extra motivation to prove his importance to the Leafs.
Once training camp commenced, Mikheyev stood out as one of the bright spots and played well during the scrimmages, which earned him MVP of the camp. He even scored 33 seconds into the tune-up game prior to the start of the play-in round. This should have been the start of an impressive comeback story for the 25-year-old winger, which is why it was surprising to see him go pointless in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets. In spite of posting impressive underlining numbers at 5v5, he was one of many Leafs that struggled to generate much offence against the goaltending tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.
So it begs the question: what should the Leafs do regarding Mikheyev’s expiring contract?
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) July 29, 2020
Back in April, there were rumours that Toronto and Mikheyev’s agent began talking about a potential extension. A lot has changed since this rumour emerged (obviously), but I imagine there remains mutual interest between the two parties regarding a contract renewal.
He is currently signed to a one-year deal where he made $925,000, so the logical conclusion is that he will get a pay raise. How much his bank account increases depends on how the Leafs management view his performance in the 2019-20 campaign. You could make the argument that his cap hit should be lower because he did not record a single point in the qualifying round. Let’s not forget about his play prior to his injury and the fact that Toronto did struggle to generate offence from their bottom-six in his absence. Then there’s the reality that not only are the Leafs going to be strapped for cap room in the offseason, but there are also nine other expiring contracts to deal with and the salary cap will likely remain stagnant for the foreseeable future.
Taking all of this information into account, my guess is the Leafs will be looking to sign Mikheyev to a two-year bridge deal with an AAV between $1.8 million and $2.3 million a season. It’s unfair to gauge his future value over a five-game series in August, though his impact on the team during the regular season can’t be overlooked. This would allow the Leafs to gain some wiggle room financially and provide Mikheyev a chance to prove that his play prior to the wrist injury is who he will become as his career progresses.
While this projection seems likely to occur, it’s also possible for him to demand a larger pay raise that may result in Toronto having to look elsewhere for a cheaper option. Since he is listed as an RFA and is exempt from the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft next year, there will be plenty of suitors willing to acquire him and meet his salary demands. This will hurt no doubt the team’s forward depth, but could also provide players like Nick Robertson a chance to crack the lineup.
The only way it would come to that is if (a) Mikheyev’s asking price exceeds $2.75 million a season and (b) Toronto is unable to move a forward off the roster to keep him. I can’t imagine that it will be the outcome, but Kyle Dubas and company will need to keep this option in mind should negotiations go sour.
So to answer the question presented in the title, the Leafs should find a way to re-sign Mikheyev. Although his play against Columbus was disappointing, he still plays a vital role in the team’s success and will likely improve in his sophomore campaign. I can see him signed to a bridge deal and, unless his asking price is too high, could see himself earning around $2 million a season.
If all else, Toronto should bring him back so that he can provide more memorable lines such as this one:
I am a proud member of the Ilya Mikheyev fan club pic.twitter.com/OU9qUCKsXy
— Ah yes, the Leafs. (@LeafsAllDayy) October 3, 2019
All salary information is from PuckPedia.com.