Canucks, Mikheyev defy expectations, but understand a good fit when they see it

VANCOUVER – Literally and figuratively, the Vancouver Canucks came in at 20-to-1 on Ilya Mikheyev.

At least 20 National Hockey League teams had expressed interest in the speedy Russian when the Canucks swooped in soon after free agency opened on Wednesday and landed the former Toronto Maple Leaf with a hefty four-year, $19-million-USD offer.

Mikheyev’s choice of Vancouver was unexpected – as was the Canucks signing anyone with the 27-year-old’s free-agent stature due to an ongoing salary-cap squeeze that just a couple of days earlier had president Jim Rutherford advising people to temper expectations.

General manager Patrik Allvin admitted Wednesday he didn’t reach out to agent Dan Milstein on Mikheyev until that day, but when the sides discussed money and role it was quickly apparent that the winger and Canucks were a good fit.

Allvin and Milstein have a good rapport, strengthened this spring when the Canucks successfully courted Kontinental Hockey League free agent Andrei Kuzmenko, another Milstein client.

In his first media availability with Vancouver reporters, Mikheyev said Thursday morning that he had lunch with Kuzmenko in Miami during the spring and had advised his countryman to sign with the Canucks over the other finalist on Kuzmenko’s list.

And now here they are, both of them Canucks, and likely to be competing against each other at training camp to see who wins a spot in the top six alongside center Bo Horvat. Both are projected to play in the top nine, which should make the team better than it was last season.

Even as an experiment, Kuzmenko is a bargain on a one-year, entry-level contract worth $950,000. But Mikheyev is being paid five-fold that and represents a critical bet by the Canucks that his offensive breakthrough last season, when he scored 21 goals as a bonus to all the speed, puck possession and penalty-killing he offers, wasn’t a one-off.

“I work a lot in the summer before last year because I understand what this means for me,” Mikheyev said on Zoom about his offensive surge last season. “I understand more hockey in NHL. It’s more experience, you know? Everything is easier for me. Game, practice, I feel more comfortable and of course I understand my mistakes.”

Mikheyev’s 21 goals and 32 points were generated from the Maple Leafs’ third line, with limited power-play time, and over just 53 games due to a broken thumb that forced the winger to miss the first two months of the season.

His shooting percentage was 14.3 per cent, twice as efficient as during his first two NHL seasons, and is very likely unsustainable.

What should be sustainable, however, is Mikheyev’s speed-based play-driving. His shots-for percentage of 56.25 was fourth among Leafs forwards, behind only the Auston Matthews line. This is even more impressive when you consider Mikheyev started only 36 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone. His expected goals-for of 57 per cent was also fourth on the team among forwards.

Mikheyev’s power-play time of 1:06 per game was eighth among Toronto forwards. He scored as many goals shorthanded (four) as he did with the man-advantage. So, give Mikheyev 25 more games if he stays healthy and the chance to double his power-play time and earn top-six minutes, and absolutely he could score 20 goals again.

“The way he plays and how competitive he is and his speed. . . it’s hard to pick a number,” Allvin said Wednesday during his media scrum. “But definitely, I think he’s capable of scoring, you know, up to around 20 goals, 15 to 20 goals. But what he brings more is (opening) up lanes for other skilled players. That’s the intriguing part with him.”

“It’s a good team,” Mikheyev said of the Canucks. “It’s not young team and it’s not old. . . I think it’s something medium. You have a lot of skills in the team and in my opinion, it’s just more work, (working) harder.”

Interestingly, in his final two seasons in Russia before joining the Maple Leafs in 2019, Mikheyev scored goals at a pace nearly identical to what Kuzmenko, 26, produced the last two years: .362 goals-per-game versus .373 GPG.

Mikheyev said he got to know Vancouver and the Canucks by playing against them.

“I like city, like team, like how (they) built this team,” he said.

Mikheyev said he resumed training in Russia in June and plans to move with his wife and their dog to Vancouver well ahead of training camp in September “because it’s a new chapter for me, for my family and we want to be ready once season starts. ”

Neither the Canucks nor his representatives expect any problems for Mikheyev leaving Russia.

Asked about the pressure of playing in another Canadian market but on a much bigger contract, Mikheyev said: “I played two years in Toronto; I know what this means, pressure. Of course, I understand this.”

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