The Toronto Maple Leafs have been playing some outstanding hockey this season after a slow start, even with key players dealing with injuries. Ilya Mikheyev is one of those key players that has been bitten by the injury bug. Back on October the 11th the Maple Leafs told the media that Mikheyev would be out for roughly 8 weeks. Well 8 weeks have passed and now Leafs fans wonder. Where does Mikheyev fit within the Leafs lineup? Or does he even fit in the lineup at all?
I feel that there are 3 options for the Leafs moving forward with the Mikheyev situation so let’s break them down.
Option 1: Mikheyev playing a top 6 role
To start the year the plan was to have Mikheyev playing on the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander. Mikheyev expressed to Toronto that he wanted more ice time or he wanted to be traded. Toronto’s GM Kyle Dubas and Head Coach Sheldon Keefe both wanted Mikheyev to stay with the team, so they both agreed to give him more ice time going into this season. Ilya was a 3rd line role player last season and like this season, battled with injuries sidelining him for sometime.
Towards the end of the pre-season Mikheyev was playing on the 2nd line and playing well. Mikheyev’s speed and gritty style of play fit really well with Nylander and Tavares. He was winning puck battles and helping the line score goals.
With Mikheyev being out of the lineup Alexander Kerfoot has filled the gap getting 4 goals and 10 assists in 23 games. With this option Kerfoot would be moved down to either the 3rd or 4th line and you would see Pierre Engvall being a healthy scratch or sent down to the AHL. See graphic below.
With this option however, I don’t see Engvall being out of the lineup all season. With the Leafs strapped tight to the salary cap they might move Kerfoot and his 3.5 million dollar contract.
Option 2: Mikheyev goes back to the 3rd line.
Like I said earlier Mikheyev played on the 3rd line last season and his style of play really suits a 3rd line role. This might be a good way to ease him back into the lineup while not messing around with the top 6 group, which has been very good for Toronto this year.
Both Ondřej Kaše and David Kämpf have been playing great this year and seem to play well with whoever Leafs Head Coach Sheldon Keefe puts on their wing. I feel Ilya Mikheyev could be a perfect winger for this amazing 3rd line. See graphic below.
Mikheyev would still get a good amount of playing time as long as the Leafs play him on the second power-play unit. This would result in keeping his ice time up and keeping him happy.
Option 3: Trade Ilya Mikheyev
As everyone in Leafs Nation knows the Leafs are going to have some salary cap issues moving forward and they are going to need to move some contracts. The Leafs have also looked really good this year and sometimes, bringing a player back from injury can hurt the existing chemistry.
To clear some cap space for next year plus not mess with the team chemistry, you could see Mikheyev on the move. If the Leafs did move Ilya Mikheyev I feel they would be looking for a rental defenseman. A defender with some playoff experience to help this team finally make it past the first round of the playoffs.
Mikheyev would be an easy player to move as he is only making 1.65 million per year. A small salary cap hit for his skill set. Any team that is looking for secondary scoring would be happy to add him to their roster.
So what would I do?
If I was making the call for the Maple Leafs I would combine option 1 and 2. I would start Mikheyev on the 3rd line, helping him get his legs back and getting him up to game speed. If he is playing well I’d try him on the 2nd line closer to the trade deadline. If the 2nd line looks good with Ilya on it I would then look into moving Kerfoot for a veteran rental defenseman. This would clear some cap space to bring back key players like Jack Campbell next season.