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Ilya Mikheyev deserving of an extended look on Maple Leafs’ second line, despite demotion creating the opportunity

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
One day after Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe demoted William Nylander to the team’s third line to skate with checking forwards David Kampf and Pierre Engvall, he kept the trio together for the team’s 5-2 win against the Florida Panthers.
The player who stood to gain the most from this move is Ilya Mikheyev, who moved up to the second line to play with linemates John Tavares and Alex Kerfoot in the third period of Saturday’s 4-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens.
Mikheyev scored his career-high 14th goal of the season while in a top-six assignment in a 5-2 win against the Florida Panthers on Sunday  and he did it in just his 36th game of the season. He is just one goal shy of matching his combined goal count for his first two seasons in the NHL.
“He’s making good on these breakaways, this is a good development for him and for us,” Keefe said of Mikheyev’s latest goal.
The Russian forward has never been shy of chances to score. His explosive speed has allowed him to get to the net with ease, while being able to backcheck if things go awry.
But he had difficulty in the past converting scoring chances to goals.
During the 2020-21 season, Mikheyev’s shooting percentage was a measly 6.5 per cent. And that followed an 8.2 per cent percentage in his rookie season.
But this season, he’s improved with a 13.2 shooting percentage and he showed tremendous capability with his hands when he deked past Panthers goaltender Spencer Knight.
“Mikky is such a workhorse, a thoroughbred with his speed and you can just see the confidence and belief continue to grow and grow,” Tavares said of Mikheyev. “He’s just feeling really good with the puck on his stick in those situations. He just continues to grow more and more comfortable in himself and his game and how he can make an impact and obviously finish plays off.”
The Russian forward missed the first two months of the 2021-22 campaign with a broken hand and that seemed to derail a big opportunity to get regular minutes on the second line.
After Mikheyev’s agent, reportedly asked for a trade away from the Maple Leafs in the summer, the club evidently denied the request suggesting they had plans for the forward. In the final year of a two-year contract that carries an average annual value of $1.645 million, the 27-year-old spent the entire portion of training camp skating on the left wing alongside Tavares and Nylander. All signed pointed to a top-six opportunity before Mikheyev broke his thumb during the team’s final pre-season game in October.
When Mikheyev returned after missing the first two months to recover, he found himself back on the third line. The remedy Keefe sought to make sure his forward still got chances to score was to put him on the team’s second power-play unit. He was a mainstay in that position until last week, when Keefe elected to put a second defenceman on that unit at the expense of the Russian forward.
There was also the fact that Mikheyev’s solid play in the checking role was consistent enough that Keefe kept the third line the same for 12 consecutive games.
With Nylander’s recent demotion, Keefe said he wanted to spread out the offence much like he did for five periods in late January where Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Nylander were on three different lines.
That allowed Mikheyev to get five periods of action in a top-six role before Keefe ended the experiment.
But with the patience shown on his goal last night, it could be the final piece to unlocking Mikheyev’s full potential in the NHL. And while his future with the Maple Leafs is bleak given the raise he’s expected to command as a pending unrestricted free agent, this is the right time to see if Mikheyev can be the top-six left winger that the Leafs need ahead of the playoffs.
”When he puts the puck on the net like that, he’s extremely dangerous,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said of Mikheyev. “When he’s been able to do what he’s done lately, it’s great.”
The line of Mikheyev-Tavares-Kerfoot played just 4:10 together on Saturday in a 4-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens by registered an 85.71 possession rating, per Natural Stat Trick. They had a 53 per cent rating on Sunday.
Should Nylander re-emerge on the second line at some point, it shouldn’t come at the expense of Mikheyev.
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