Ilya Mikheyev may seem pricey now, but for once the Canucks could be paying a UFA for future performance instead of past

Photo credit:© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
1 year ago
Nobody expected the Vancouver Canucks to be big-ticket players for Free Agent Frenzy 2022 and, indeed, they weren’t. But, with that being said, the Canucks still picked a far bigger UFA ticket than many predicted in the form of Ilya Mikheyev, the recipient of a four-year, $4.75 million AAV commitment from GM Patrik Allvin and Co.
The early reception, as is often the case with Vancouver’s UFA signings, has been mixed.
While Mikheyev brings many exciting traits and attributes to the table, he doesn’t necessarily bring the sort of resume that one might expect from someone who just got handed $19 million worth of contract.
Last season, Mikheyev put up 21 goals and 11 assists through 53 games, which put him on pace for about 32 goals and 17 assists across a full 82-game schedule.
Mikheyev’s PPG of 0.60 put him in a tie with Tyler Seguin for 151st place amongst NHL forwards. His goals-per-game of 0.40 put him into a tie for 56th place amongst NHL forwards, dead-even with such luminaries as Val Nichushkin, Kevin Fiala, Elias Pettersson, and JT Miller.
 GamesGoalsAssistsPointsAvg. TOI
With his new contract in hand, Mikheyev slots into a tie for the 137th-highest paid forward in the league.
So, just by last year’s standard, Mikheyev could be construed as slightly overpaid for his point-scoring prowess, but perhaps underpaid for his goal-scoring. Unfortunately, last year isn’t the only standard available for judging this signing.
Mikheyev’s career PPG is a fair bit lower at 0.49, and that’s largely due to a tough 2020/21 season in which he only managed seven goals and ten assists through 54 games.
If Mikheyev cannot maintain the breakout he experienced in 2021/22, and slips back to the level of play of the previous season, all of a sudden this looks like a bad signing.
In other words, this signing is a gamble. It’s a bet made that Mikheyev well-and-truly broke out last season, as opposed to just hitting a couple of consecutive hot streaks, and will continue to perform about as well, if not better, for the duration of his deal.
Fortunately, this is a gamble that has a far better chance of paying off than the usual risks taken amidst the annual Free Agent Frenzy.
Typically, when a player reaches UFA status, they’ve already gone through their playing prime. And while that means that the typical UFA hits the market with a much larger body of work than Mikheyev currently has, it also makes it far more likely that that player’s best days are behind him.
Almost always, a team ends up paying a UFA for past performance. And that almost inevitably leads to disappointment. Think back on the Canucks’ UFA acquisitions of years past — Tyler Myers, Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and so on — for all the evidence you could ever need of that notion.
Mikheyev, on the other hand, represents something new. He represents a rare opportunity to wind up paying a UFA for future performance, instead of past. For a franchise on the rise, that’s obviously preferable, and there’s ample reason to be optimistic.
At 27 years old, Mikheyev is about as young as UFAs get. And he’s a young 27, at that. Last season was only Mikheyev’s third in the league, and he’s yet to play his 150th NHL game. He’s got the equivalent of a rookie and a sophomore season under his belt.
A player breaking out at the age of 27 might seem unusual, but a player breaking out in his third NHL season? That’s par for the course.
Then there’s the more intangible thinking behind Mikheyev’s uptick in production, which conveniently happens to align with the specific skills that the Canucks targeted in this signing. According to scouts and the Toronto fans who had followed his entire career up to this point, Mikheyev was the classic case of a player whose hands needed to catch up with their feet.
There’s no debating that Mikheyev is fast. How fast? “Beat Connor McDavid in a foot race” fast. Prior to this past season, however, Mikheyev had a reputation for creating chances with his speed and then squandering them by firing the puck directly into the goalie’s chest.
What difference did he make to start scoring at a 30-goal pace last year? He stopped shooting the puck at the goalie’s chest.
That seems like a sustainable change. It reads more like a player “figuring it out” than experiencing good fortune, and that bodes well for Mikheyev maintaining his production moving forward. It may also have a lot to do with a bloody and difficult wrist injury that Mikheyev had to overcome, which obviously had an impact on his shooting game.
Never mind that the speed itself is kind of the point. The Canucks were one of the slowest teams in the league last year, and POHO Jim Rutherford outlined improving the team’s overall speed as one of the foremost offseason priorities.
Well, in Mikheyev, they’ve added one of the fastest skaters in the world, period.
Never mind that Mikheyev has a particular penchant for using that speed to disrupt and to generate chances while shorthanded, another area in which the Canucks have recently struggled.
Mikheyev’s underlying stats also paint the picture of a player who was well on their way to breaking out before said breakout actually happened.
From NaturalStatTrick, at 5v5 play
Mikheyev’s analytics are, and always have been, absolutely sparkling. The level of control that he and his linemates exude when on the ice is remarkable, and that remarkability was taken up a further notch as he broke out in 2021/22.
Numbers like a 59.02% xG rate and a 60% control of high-danger scoring chances don’t just suggest that Mikheyev’s breakout was a legitimate one, they suggest he could be on the verge of another breakout in the seasons to come.
Perhaps most encouraging of all are the circumstances under which Mikheyev achieved these results. In 2021/22, he faced deployment that was a smidgen over and above the league-average quality of competition. Mikheyev also started 60.6% of his shifts in the defensive zone.
In other words, Mikheyev scored at a 30-goal pace, put up even better fancy stats than that, and produced excellent defensive results, all while being asked to take on something resembling a shutdown deployment.
It was Mikheyev’s first year being asked to take on such responsibility, and he did not wilt under the pressure.
So, is there risk involved in the Mikheyev signing? Sure. Is he potentially being overpaid right now, in this very instant? Maybe!
But UFAs are almost always overpaid, anyway. In this case, the Canucks have managed to snag themselves a player who looks to be on the cusp of establishing themselves as a consistent two-way, top-six stud, and they did so at a price that will continue to look increasingly reasonable so long as Mikheyev doesn’t regress.
This contract will cover Mikheyev from the age of 28 to 31. It will also cover this fourth NHL season through his seventh. Based on the numbers, based on the analytics, and based on the narrative of a player who just figured out how to put it all together last season, those years promise to be the very best in Ilya Mikheyev’s career.
And how many times have the Canucks been able to say that about a UFA contract they’ve signed in recent years?
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