The good news is that Ilya Mikheyev did attend training camp on the ice. The bad news has the Vancouver Canucks missing Mikheyev almost immediately as he left for “personal reasons.” The team is hoping – a lot – that this isn’t a harbinger of the season to come.
Missing Mikheyev Seems Inevitable
So the Vancouver Canucks get this guy who – on paper – fits their team perfectly. Yeah, he’s in his late 20s, but his particular skills are exactly what the Canucks need right now. Strong on defence and can help shelter younger players as they develop.
He’s going to get a raise because he just scored 21 goals with his former team, but if he can keep that up it will all be worth it. Averaging $4+ million and limited trade protection is a bit of a pain, sure. But that’s for other, later general managers to figure out.
Of course, this being Vancouver, he’s injured early in his tenure and can never quite get back up to speed. Certainly not in his first season, anyway. But enough about Brandon Sutter. Let’s talk Ilya Mikheyev. He is now one of the more interesting storylines to follow.
Big Signing, Medium Expectations
The thing about Canucks fans is that they’ve seen it all. Pick a superlative, they’ve heard a half dozen free agents described that way. “Incredibly fast!” “Great defensively!” “Can really add some secondary scoring!” Every year at least one gets trotted out by management.
Thing is, Mikheyev actually qualifies for all three. He really is – or was, prior to his knee injury – one of the fastest players in the league. He was an integral part of the Toronto Maple Leafs penalty kill for all three seasons there.
And to see balanced offence, his 100 points in 192 games is almost perfectly split between goals (49) and assists (51). He takes advantage of skilled linemates, as a shooter or as a decoy. The Canucks are missing Mikheyev partly because of how rarely he missed his teammates.
Mikheyev really is a player who can keep up in speed with Connor McDavid and be a threat while short-handed. It’s everything the Canucks need right now. The tricky part has been staying on the ice long enough to prove it.
A very early injury gave fans in Vancouver a tainted version of Ilya Mikheyev last season. He was decent, but his skating certainly wasn’t anything as exceptional as advertised. Until he finally quit the year to get surgery, there was no indication anything was wrong.
There were rumours that he was playing injured, but the team wouldn’t be stupid enough to do that to their big, shiny free agent, would they? That’s just crazy talk! It also highlights why you should never ask players if they’re good to continue. Not if you expect an honest answer.
Ends up you can skate with a torn anterior cruciate ligament with little risk of damaging it further. So with the Canucks in such a challenging spot to make the playoffs, he decided to keep playing.
And now that late decision will – probably – delay his return to competition at full strength. This isn’t what Vancouver wanted at any point, but it’s what they have. The question is what to do about it.
Mikheyev himself did show up at the start of training camp only to leave the same day. While both he and the team explained it was for “personal reasons” we all know that’s code for “you guys go ahead and speculate wildly.”
More seriously, the suspicion is that he wants to exercise caution in his return. It’s one thing to recover to the point of walking or skating, quite another to play competitively.
If the Canucks are missing Mikheyev to start the season, there are options to replace him. But first, you need to ask what is it he provides that is getting replaced and who is best suited for that role.
What was Mikheyev adding to those two? A lot, which is no surprise. Sharp passing, good defence, a solid forecheck, and puck retrieval skills to go with a decent shot. Okay, maybe we can find a couple of those for each match-up.
Missing Mikheyev on the Top Line
Rick Tocchet, by his own admission, is a fan of forward line pairs rather than trios. Find a good pairing that works together, then see who can work with them. Given who two of his assistant coaches are, it’s an idea that has wide acceptance in Vancouver.
The most likely top-line duo is Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko. Puck retrieval is an obvious benefit, and the passes should be top-notch or it’s just a waste. On the top line, maybe defence can slide a bit in return for scoring chances.
Let’s have Brock Boeser join Pettersson and Kuzmenko. His speed isn’t anything close to Mikheyev’s of course, but his board work is surprisingly solid and he is one of the best passing forwards on the team. His shot is a perpetual threat – or it is when he’s not recovering from a wrist injury.
Missing Mikheyev on the Penalty Kill
Mikheyev is very effective at hounding puck carriers, forcing hurried decisions or slowing plays. His speed makes him a scoring threat opponents need to be aware of, but we’ll let that aspect of his game slide here.
Back to who Tocchet likes, and Phillip Di Giuseppe fits the bill. Di Giuseppe will absolutely put his body on the line to block shots. He’ll chase down whoever or whatever is stopping him from clearing the zone. And in his first extended look at the kill, he worked, in every sense.
The Canucks’ disastrous early PK numbers slowly climbed to merely “horrible” by season’s end, and part credit should go to PDG. In seven NHL seasons, he’s never played more than 50 games, but he should find a home here.
Missing Mikheyev in the Middle Six
But maybe Vancouver already had a player in mind for that top line. It could well be that Tocchet will try Vasily Podkolzin with the big guns to get his game in shape early. Maybe start him with Boeser and J.T. Miller, or Pius Suter and Conor Garland for an extra layer of irritation.
If that’s the case, then Mikheyev’s most valuable asset would likely be his forechecking. Pinning opponents in the attacking zone, keeping the puck deep even if shots don’t present themselves. A classic “soften them up for the next line” group.
While this should be a role Podkolzin grows into, Nils Höglander can royally piss opponents off right now. While his defence is still lacking a bit, Höglander loves to get after that puck. And once he does get it, he’s very good at holding it himself.
There is a lot of Garland’s game visible in Höglander’s play. Have those two flank Suter and you can make the most annoying sub-six-foot line in the league. Expect them to keep the power play busy.
The long and short is that everyone wants Mikheyev back at full speed sooner rather than later. When you’re listing three players to replace one, you are really going to miss that one.
Main Photo Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports