In such a young offseason, the Toronto Maple Leafs have already been busy forming their roster for next season. Signing European free agent defenceman Teemu Kivihalme and forward Ilya Mikheyev to secure some affordable depth.
When it comes to European free agents, they’re clouded in this sense of mystery and wonder — essentially just an older draft pick where you’re stuck with YouTube clips and judging players on raw counting stats.
The two acquisitions show a familiar trend for the modern NHL and especially this franchise. Grabbing any talent they can for a minimal cost and really only having the option of the player being more than what they cost — this frugal concept has been key for the Leafs as of late.
Starting with Nikita Zaitsev and Miro Aaltonen, then signing both Par Lindholm and Igor Ozhiganov last summer, the Leafs continue this newfound tradition and sign two of the most coveted overseas free agents.
Most likely, neither one will be a free agent on the level of an Artemi Panarin, but they will both continue to strengthen the Leafs’ depth as they head into the 2019-20 season with a lot of questions still to be answered.
The definition of low-risk moves.
First is Russian forward Ilya Mikheyev, who was believed as the highest-regarded European forward free agent this offseason.
The 24-year-old ranked 21st among all KHL skaters in points last regular season, scoring 23 goals and 45 points in 62 games. Adding to some more blanket stats, he led all KHL forwards in shots on goal last season, with 197.
It’s also important to add that only six of his 23 goals came on the power play — signifying that he’s not just simply able to take advantage and stat-pad on the man advantage.
Using his skating ability at even-strength, Mikheyev is able to crash the net and really highlight his physical game. That’s evident on a goal he scored in an international tournament back in February of this year.
Mikheyev strips the puck from a Finnish skater and takes it right to the net to score an unassisted goal. That kind of play seems perfect for the modern style of today’s NHL.
The focus on both ends of the ice must be music to Babcock’s ears. If he holds the same ability in the NHL, Mikheyev can become an anchor in the bottom-six forwards, an area where the Leafs heavily lacked in talent on the wing this year.
Really like this from Mikheyev. Instead of dumping it out on the penalty kill he goes for a skate, makes a nice move and creates a nice chance for himself. Then he helps win a battle down low, resulting in another scoring chance for his team. pic.twitter.com/iddb33gQrZ
— 51Leafs (@51Leafs) May 6, 2019
Even while on the penalty kill, Mikheyev is active and trying for a scoring chance that was the clear correct decision. Instead of making a safe (boring) play, the forward avoided most contact and was able to use his mobility to make a scoring chance.
Having a winger that will be able to hold responsibility all over the ice is where most teams are heading and this signing demonstrates what the Leafs want in their depth forwards.
A la Trevor Moore, Mikheyev can be physical as well as provide some offence. But his physicality doesn’t get him in trouble with the officials, accruing only eight penalty minutes all season.
When it comes to the Russian, he has the opportunity to make the Leafs straight out of camp. Tyler Ennis free agency, rumours of a Connor Brown departure, Patrick Marleau not on solid ground — all of these point to at least a couple of open spots on the Leafs’ bottom-six forwards.
His ability to kill penalties and be a hopeful five-tool player in the NHL might bring him to front of mind when talking about what the Leafs’ forwards look like next season.
The other European signing for the Leafs is left-handed defenceman Teemu Kivihalme.
Born in Minnesota, where his father Janne coached high school hockey, Kivihalme went the NCAA developmental route with Colorado College and was drafted by the Nashville Predators in the fifth round of the 2013 draft.
Now 23-years-old, Kivihalme has spent the last two seasons playing professionally in the Finnish Liiga for Kärpät. In those two years, he has scored a total of 13 goals and 50 points in 104 games. He has spent significant time on the power play, over 90 minutes each season in the Liiga, and four of his 13 goals, as well as nine of his 37 assists spanning over the two years have come on the man advantage.
While his points seem unimpressive, Kivihalme ranked eighth among all Liiga defenceman (min. 20 GP) in on-ice shot attempts, with a 56.3 CF% at 5v5. Demonstrating a strong game on both ends of the ice and breaking out as one of the key defencemen in Finland.
One thing is for certain, he is not scared of jumping up in the play and getting involved in the offensive zone.
All throughout this highlight pack, Kivihalme is active and offensively-aware in the opponent’s zone. He won’t have this much liberty to jump into the play in the North American style of the game, but his skating ability should be able to make up for that.
Whether Kivihalme makes the leap directly to the NHL is dependent on a lot of things to go his way. Unlike the situation with Mikheyev, the defenceman is coming into a position that is already one of the Leafs’ key strengths.
Even with the (likely) departure of Jake Gardiner, Kivihalme will be competing with Travis Dermott, Jake Muzzin, Calle Rosen and Martin Marincin for two LHD spots. Of course playing on their off-side is a possibility, it still looks bleak whether or not he will make the team out of camp.
Dermott will be out for at least six months due to a shoulder surgery, but there are plenty of defencemen that can be viewed on the same level of newcomer Kivilhalme. Going down the depth chart even further, Andreas Borgman could have another chance in the NHL while struggling with injuries in the AHL this past season.
Not even regarding the fact that both Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are viewed by some to be ready for the NHL.
Kivihalme adds even more significant depth and could surprise in September as an option for this club, but there are many other names to put around him as well. He could just end up being a Rosen replacement for the Marlies, which they could use.
Regarding both Mikheyev and Kivihalme, both of these signings are extremely low-risk and don’t really prevent any significant development to already-existing prospects the Leafs have.
Mikheyev will most likely be in the NHL from the first game, adding more speed and defensive skill to a bottom-six that desperately needs it. While Kivihalme has tough competition for a position on the blue line, but coming from overseas and playing in the Liiga for the previous two seasons makes his exact talent level unsure.
Whether or not either of these players make a significant impact within the Leafs organization, they are certainly worth the low-cost risk that the Leafs are taking in these signings.