Fun on and off the ice, Ilya Mikheyev is the Maple Leafs’ new secret weapon

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He likes soup and loves to score, and for that Ilya Mikheyev is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Toronto off the ice. But it’s his on-ice work that’ll keep fans, and coach Mike Babcock, happy.

Ilya Mikheyev |Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

“It’s very important for me that I like soup. I don’t know why you don’t eat soup. My girlfriend cooks and I am very happy when I eat.”

Out of context, Ilya Mikheyev’s post-game comments about a hot meal don’t make a lot of sense. And standing in the scrum when Mikheyev said it Wednesday, not long after scoring his first NHL goal, it didn’t make a lot of sense, either. The question, after all, was about adjusting to life in Canada. (By the way, borscht is his favorite, if you were wondering.) But no matter the context, it was that moment right there that Maple Leafs fans became attached to the young Russian import, who had a memorable two-point debut on home ice in Toronto.

So far, Mikheyev has enjoyed his time in Canada. There have been some challenges adjusting to North American life, especially when it comes to the language. Mikheyev, who had learned some English from his teacher in Russia, had asked his translator to step down so he can address the media himself on Wednesday. The next morning, Mikheyev told reporters that his English is getting better after watching episodes of ‘Friends’ on Netflix. He’s working hard at adjusting to his new home, and it shows.

“Sometimes I don’t know words, so I check them in my Google translate dictionary,” Mikheyev said.

To many, he’s still an unknown quantity who was inked as an undrafted free agent out of the KHL. But here’s the scoop: Mikheyev spent the past four seasons in the KHL with Avangard Omsk, his 45-point campaign in 2018-19 highlighting an impressive run in his native country. Mikheyev was heavily courted by NHL teams prior to the summer, and at one point, it was reported he was on his way to join the Vegas Golden Knights. Ultimately, though, he chose the team with the biggest spotlight in the NHL.

Known for his speed, Mikheyev has been a bright spot in his first few weeks as a Maple Leaf. On a team with more bottom-six depth than usual, Mikheyev’s effectiveness without the puck paired with his hard-working nature has made him a fit. He has more natural skill than most bottom-six options on the Leafs, too. Using Mason King’s PNHLe model, which uses output in other leagues to estimate NHL output, Mikheyev appears a safe bet for 30 points. Scoring 15 goals in a depth role is definitely in the realm of possibility, too. And his game has impressed coach Mike Babcock.

“He is confident, confident, confident,” Babcock said. “His habits in his life lead to him being ready to go each and every day. You’re just seeing the start here.”

Toronto has no shortage of wingers to fill the final four lineup spots, but Mikheyev is deserving of his opportunity. He’s only on a one-year deal in Toronto, however, so nothing about his long-term NHL future is guaranteed. The challenging part will be managing his role once Zach Hyman returns to the lineup. Hyman is expected to return in early November, and under Toronto’s current arrangement, that could force Mikheyev to fight Nic Petan for a fourth-line spot. Petan might have the inside track given he suited up for Toronto last season, but he has struggled to produce in the NHL. He also might be more suited to playing a skilled role than in the bottom six. Mikheyev brings a mix of both styles.

Can he win the job? Again, Babcock isn’t willing to just give anyone a roster spot, but it’s clear the coach likes Mikheyev. But that decision is still a few weeks away. On a team where big-money forwards dominate the discussion each week, having an all-around option who does everything asked of him – and well – in the bottom six is an asset. Plus, he doesn’t seem to mind the media, and his fun-loving personality is sure to continue to endear him to the Maple Leafs faithful.

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