Silly brand endorsement tips hand to imminent Leafs signing

The news we’ve all been waiting to hear finally broke – Ilya Mikheyev is officially endorsed by Campbell’s Soup! But, is there more pertinent news on the horizon?

Here it is, the glorious social media post we’ve all been looking for. Ilya MIkheyev holding a spoon up with some tasty, tasty Campbell’s soup at the ready. The endorsement was seemingly inevitable after Mikheyev joined the Leafs with the Twitter handle @soupman65 and declaring his love for the meal.

While the story is cool and endorsement fun to see, is there more than meets the eye here? Two important factors in this add – its Campbell’s Canada, and Mikheyev is wearing a Leafs uniform.

It’s all but clear (to me, anyway) that there is an imminent extension for Ilya Mikheyev with the Toronto Maple Leafs. There are a few reasons why this would appear to be happening:

  • Campbell’s soup wouldn’t jump on a random athlete more than halfway through the season with him only inked until the end of the year
  • The player is also currently injured and hasn’t been on the ice since December 27th
  • Campbell’s simultaneously announced their partnership with the entire Toronto Maple Leafs organization
  • Jack Campbell would have arguably been a better, longterm option for branding

With cap space at a premium within the team, signing versatile forwards that can move up and down your lineup is a key component to staying cap compliant as well as competitive for years to come.

The extending of Pierre Engvall may be the open door for a Mikheyev deal as well. Engvall signed a two-year extension at $1.25m a year in the past weeks, upping himself from the $925k/year he and Mikheyev make. Short term contract, roster stability, and a chance to succeed could get Mikheyev on board with extending his time in Toronto.

It should be noted that Mikheyev was a dark horse in the Calder Trophy race before getting injured against New Jersey back in December. His point production, 8 goals and 15 assists, had him turning heads, largely built on his work ethic, good shooting ability, and relentlessness on the puck.

The Leafs would be wise to have a backroom extension ready to go for Mikheyev as they did with Muzzin, likely ready to be signed after the end of the season. He’s big, can play physical, and has a good conversion rate on offensive chances. A la the Pittsburgh Penguins, support your strong spine with versatile forwards on the cheap.

Not having Mikheyev signed long term with the Leafs doesn’t make sense for all parties included – the Leafs themselves, Mikheyev and his future in the NHL, and Campbell’s soup who have donned the title of Brand Ambassador on the 24-year-old Russian on an expiring deal. No crystal ball needed here.

Get to know the towering Marlies who could add Maple Leaf size

A lot of criticism on the currently constructed Maple Leafs falls on their lack of size and physicality in their forward group. Sure, John Tavares adds some grit to the first line, and Zach Hyman’s presence exceeds his stature, but if the Leafs want more size look no further than their minor league roster.

Ilya Mikheyev:

The Leafs offseason international addition, Ilya Mikheyev, was a pretty solid compromise between Dubas and Babcock ideology. Babcock craves size and physicality, while Dubas wants value for scoring ability, this Russian winger provides both for a sub-million dollar contract.

As for his application, look for Mikheyev to start the season on the big league roster. He is 6’2″ which, as Babcock would say, can’t be taught. Outside of that, Mikheyev has played at Omsk Avangard in the KHL for the past four seasons, maturing at age 24 and adding solid playoff experience as well.

His last season saw him exceed his games played and points total. He played 62 games and put up 45 points during the campaign. He also seemingly found another gear in the playoffs, chipping in 11 points in 13 games.

Next season I could see him playing alongside Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen/Trevor Moore for what could be a terrifyingly effective and offensive third unit. If he can transition to the NHL game with ease I could also see him step into the second PP unit as a net-front presence.

Yegor Korshkov:

Yegor Korshkov made TML headlines last season when he was recalled to join the Marlies for their playoff run as some added reinforcements. He did see action in nine games but only had one goal in this period of time. The 23-year-old right-winger will almost certainly start the season as a Marlie, as right-wing is deep for the Leafs, and it’s fitting as he has some development to due.

He is 6’4″ and a reported 180lbs so he has some bulking up to do as well, but don’t count him out as a shutdown depth Leaf in the future. Korshkov can also chip in offensively, as he did in his last full season (2017-19) with 26 points in 52 games played. Being a former Leafs draft pick at 31 overall, Korshkov may have some leniency from management, but the clock is ticking.

Pierre Engvall:

Pierre Engvall is a lot of Leafs fans pick for a Marlies big man to make the transition sooner rather than later. First, Engvall comes in at 6’5″ and doesn’t fall victim to the “big man can’t skate” issue that affects a lot of 6’+ NHLers.

Engvall’s smooth skating combined with his size makes him an attractive player and fit for the high octane offense the Maple Leafs boast. Last season Engvall chipped in 32 points in 70 games, and also added seven points in 13 playoff games in the Marlies deep Calder Cup run.

The Swedish core of the Leafs also makes Engvall a solid fit with Nylander and Johnsson leading the way. Engvall could easily become a fan favorite as the big brutes tend to be, but he’ll win over fans with offensive output over hitting and fighting as any solid modern-day NHLer should.

Mason Marchment:

Maybe the most under the radar player on this list, Mason Marchment is a massively impressive prospect currently on the Marlies and should attract more attention come training camp this season. The Leafs are spoiled for options on the wings currently, but Marchment could force their hand sooner rather than later on players like Kenny Agostino and Nic Petan.

The 24-year-old, Uxbridge native, undrafted left-winger comes in at 6’4″, 200lbs. In his past two seasons with the Marlies, he has played in 44 games each, scoring 26 and 25 points respectively. His 60 penalty minutes last season, a stark increase over his season prior or any other season in his career, also suggests he’ll mix it up with his opponents.

With lesser offensive output than Mikheyev or Engvall, Marchment may actually be a better fit for the Leafs. His forecasted position would be a left-winger in the bottom-6, and as shown last season Mike Babcock isn’t afraid to scratch and move around his bottom units to generate more offense. Look out for this kid to replace Kadri as the key agitator for the Leafs in the near future.

It makes no sense for Jeremy Bracco to be an opening day Maple Leaf

Tis the season for mock lineups and projected units for NHL teams. Free agency is well underway, draft picks are joining up with their teams, and fans are ready to try and predict the future. That being said, all these Leafs lineups with Jeremy Bracco in them need to relax a bit.

The Toronto Marlies best forward last season shouldn’t be getting a sniff at the opening day roster this season. Yes, Jeremy Bracco is the Leafs top offensive prospect and their best player outside of the NHL currently, but that’s not good enough in the salary cap world.

First things first, we need to give credit where credit is due. For Bracco, he’s scored goals and produced points at every level. The only season where he was under a point a game was 2017/18 with the Marlies, his first jaunt against grown men. He followed up his 32 point (in 50gp) season with a 79 point campaign (75gp), plus a 16 point (13gp) playoff run.

All signs are pointing to Bracco stepping up and getting in on the Leafs high octane offense, right? Wrong. With the salary cap’s minimal increase and the Leafs need for sustainable, long-term solutions for their cap-crunched issues, Bracco must overcook in the incubator.

Why not now?

Let me state again, as I feel like I need to be completely clear here, he is likely NHL ready and there is certainly a position for him on the Leafs this season. Now, let’s get into why he isn’t going to be in the lineup on October 2nd.

It’s not romantic and it is a little boring, but it’s a finance issue. Bracco would only cost the Leafs $842,500 this season, but to keep him in the minors and use new international signing Ilya Mikheyev ($925,000) instead, the Leafs can keep Bracco on his cheap deal without exposing him to the NHL and thus giving him an opportunity to earn a big pay bump on his next deal, which will need to be negotiated after this season.

At 22, Bracco is young but not unproven. His age and his RFA status make him a solid sleeper option for the Leafs front office, but only after next season. I think if the team need a boost we could see Bracco be used as an offensive jolt, but let’s be honest this team likely won’t struggle to score goals.

Lastly, Bracco’s predicted usage would be as a bottom-six RW, and frankly, that isn’t going to do him any favors as a developing playmaker. When Bracco comes into this team he should get a look at middle-six ice time and second unit powerplay time as well. He’s a skill player so he needs these opportunity to flourish and grow. Let big bodied Mikheyev soak up the hard bottom-six minutes and allow Bracco to overcook into a homegrown offensive missile to be used in a few seasons time.

Who’s making the Leafs next season? Prospects and new free agents

As discussed on the latest episode of The Rival Sports Podcast, the Leafs have a solid group of prospects who could impact the big league team. As Chicago showed us through their dynastic cup runs, the big boys getting paid means you have to have stocked cupboards of discount players to fill out your roster.

You can listen here:

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Here are our top two picks each on who we think will crack the Leafs opening day roster:

Al’s Picks

Jeremy Bracco

The most dynamic forward on the Marlies right now, Jeremy Bracco was an obvious but needed pick for this list. The American winger fits in with what the Leafs need on their current roster as the skillful winger tends to set up more goals than he finishes. With the Leafs current star center depth, this is a big positive.

The critics will say he is too small, or that the Leafs, in general, are too small and Bracco just adds to this problem. Mitch Marner has proved how moot a point this is with his ridiculous start to his career at a measly 6′ (yeah, okay), 175 lbs. At 5′ 11″ and 181 lbs, Bracco is essentially a carbon copy of Marner physically.

Bracco is basically Marner-lite; a newer, younger copy of the original albeit probably not as elite offensively (it’s a high bar!). The 22-year-old is seemingly ready for the NHL after two seasons with the Marlies. He smashed his first season’s point total, 32 points in 50 games, with 79 points in 75 games this season. After his two seasons and two playoff runs with the Marlies, isn’t it time to plug some Leafs roster holes with this gem?

Prediction: Top-9 winger

Timothy Lijegren

The equivalent to Jeremy Bracco, as far as positional prospect rankings, Timothy Lijegren appears to be knocking on the NHL’s door. The 6’0, 200lb Swedish, RIGHT SHOT defenseman has put up two solid seasons with the Marlies after being drafted and could make the jump this offseason to the Leafs.

The Leafs scooped up the fallen draftee in 2017 after illness marred his draft year. His development was a little stunted due to this, however, it has forced the once offensive-minded defender to focus more on the defensive side of his game and develop into a two-way player. Playing alongside 2018 first-round pick, Rasmus Sandin, an elite scoring defenseman has also reigned in his play, too!

Liljegren’s solid play last season after a bad start to the season should get him consideration come training camp time this fall. That being said, the Leafs need for right-shot defenseman should also see his name shoot up the list of breakout candidates.

Prediction: bottom pairing defenseman

Adam’s Picks

Ilya Mikheyev

They must have signed him for some reason, right? The Leafs first international signee during the World Hockey Championships was this scoring winger out of the KHL. Ilya Mikheyev, 24, has played four regular seasons with Omsk Avangard of the KHL, growing in offensive production along the way. With a total of 45 points in 62 games last season split with 23 goals and 22 assists, Mikheyev‘s scoring prowess is shared across goals and assists.

At 6’ 2″ and 190lbs Mikheyev also adds a size dimension to a shorter Leafs roster. People are forecasting him as a replacement for Auston Matthews rightwing should one or both of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen be moved. With Matthews elite shot and Mikheyev‘s (reportedly) silky passing, the fit could work.

I revert back to my first sentence on Mikheyev. Dubas, Shanahan, and Babcock must have signed this player for a reason. At 24 (much like Zaitsev) the Leafs would be banking on him to hit the ground running as he isn’t a young prospect anymore. Surely he’ll get a look to start the season, no?

Prediction: top-9 forward

Teemu Kivihalme

Let me say it again, they must have signed him for a reason. To be fair, Teemu Kivihalme is probably going to be a depth player, but the lack of defensive depth currently on the team could see him play a more important role and originally believed.

Despite him being a left shot defenseman, and the Leafs already having Rielly, Muzzin, and Rosen filling their top-3 left shot D positions, Kivihalme could see some platoon work. Rosen has just 8 games of NHL experience over two different stints with the team; his headstart on Kivihalme is minimal. Rather than overwhelming Rosen and Kivihalme, Babcock could use both and create a battle for that bottom pairing spot.

With Travis Dermott also in the left D mix, despite his shoulder injury which will keep him out for the beginning of the season, Kivihalme still has a potential position. Left shot/right shot is a bit overanalyzed and if both Rosen and Kivihalme show they can play, why not stick them together?

Prediction: 7th defenceman-bottom pairing

We want to know: Who do you agree with, Al or Adam? Did we miss out on anyone else? Let us know on Social Media or in the comments below!

Winners and Losers of the Maple Leafs signing Ilya Mikheyev

The Maple Leafs have signed Russian free agent Ilya Mikheyev to a one-year deal. Here are the winners and losers of that signing, and the changes that could follow.

Winners!

The two biggest winners here are pretty obvious: The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ilya Mikheyev himself. For Toronto, the win is that they get another talent to join their ranks and bolster their offensive depth. His pedigree in the KHL also suggests that he has a lot more to offer than some underripe AHLers, too.

Last season, Mikheyev put up 45 points in 62 games for Omsk Avangard in the regular season, plus another 11 points in 13 playoff games. His production is solid and shows that, as a depth winger, he may have some firepower to offer.

With the ability to score on top of his 6’2″ frame, Mikheyev may have a crucial role to play on the Leafs, as long as Mike Babcock is at the helm still. Physically, Mikheyev won’t have as much to prove as the common undersized forward Dubas seems to prioritize. With Babs behind the bench, Mihkeyev could win him over before ever touching the ice.

Teammates who benefit

The third and fourth line centerman are the biggest winners here. Immediately, that means Nazem Kadri and Frederick Gauthier but in the (possibly near) future, that also includes Adam Brooks and Nic Petan.

Kadri’s future is up in the air; his suspension gave Dubas and co. all the excuses in the world to trade him away, which they already may have been working on to fit in Marner’s cap hit this year. Gauthier as often is the case, is just going to be happy he’s here for the ride. More size on the fourth unit would be welcomed, though.

Brooks is a bit of a longshot, but his AHL form this year has not gone unnoticed. His chemistry with the likes of obvious 2019/20 Leaf Trevor Moore may also give him the inside track on the third unit should Kadri be traded.

Nic Petan – is he expendable, is he a cover player, or is he going to be a legit factor in the bottom-6 for the Leafs next year? Time will tell, but if he gets more time at center then chalk this signing up as a win for him.

The losers

Any bottom-6 winger not named Trevor Moore. That may be over-simplifying it, but it’s not untrue. I believe Connor Brown may be forced out due to his $2m cap hit so he could be the biggest loser.

Like Brown, cash may dictate one of Kasperi Kapanen and/or Andreas Johnsson out of Toronto, too. Both players are awaiting contracts and both players are due for substantial upticks to their salaries. Mikheyev may not get close to their productivity, but if the choice is between him and Marner vs. Kap/Johnsson and no Marner, the former is going to win.

This signing is also a bit of a slap-in-the-face to the Marlies, who are currently succeeding past their NHL team in the playoffs. Jeremy Bracco and Egor Korshkov are the two most affected players.

Bracco is destined for the top-6 on the Leafs, but his path may start on a depth line. Korshkov, who recently signed his ELC with the Leafs and joined the Marlies after, has produced immediately in the Calder Cup playoffs, but now has some competition come September for a roster spot.

Signalling change?

This could be one of a few moves that start the process of change to the Maple Leafs. They have to get Marner’s contract done as soon as possible and by any means necessary. The Mikheyev signing adds depth to the forward group to insulate the team from possible important losses.

Can we connect the dots and cast out one of Johnsson and Kapanen now? Does this move make any sense in the story arch including a Nazem Kadri trade?

Maybe, but one thing we can see already with Kyle Dubas at the helm is that he doesn’t like to sit idly by, instead he likes to instigate the next move rather than react to it. It should be an exciting offseason with the potential of great chance coming to the team.