The two topics of today’s unrestricted free agency preview targets share a lot of similarities. Both players last played for the Toronto Maple Leafs; both players also share the same first name of Ilya. Both players are also Russian-born, were undrafted, and will both be 28 by the start of next season. The one major difference between them is the position that they play, yet both could theoretically be a boost to the New Jersey Devils. Our subjects of discussion today will be Ilya Lyubushkin and Ilya Mikheyev.
Both players took somewhat similar paths to the NHL, starting out in the KHL prior to signing entry level contracts in the NHL. Mikheyev started out with Toronto in 2019-20, whereas Lyubushkin came over the season prior in 2018-19 but with the Arizona Coyotes. Lyubushkin has a reputation for being a stay at home defender, while Mikheyev as a complementary winger is coming off of a 21 goal in 53 game season. Does either Ilya make sense as a Devils target when free agency opens in a few weeks?
Who is Ilya Lyubushkin and What Would He Bring to the Table?
Let’s start today with the player who has more tenure in the NHL in Lyubushkin. He began his hockey career as a part of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl organization in the KHL. He was never a prolific producer during his time with Lokomotiv, and that reputation for just bringing defense to the table continued on when he arrived in the NHL on a one year entry level deal. He would re-sign with the Coyotes three times, all for one year each. In the 180 appearances he made with Arizona., he would post a meager 19 points.
Toronto would acquire him prior to the trade deadline this past February along with Ryan Dzingel while sending Nick Ritchie and a draft pick the other way. While he stayed true to form and didn’t aid the Leafs’ offense, he did provide a boost to their bottom pair defending. Unfortunately, that boost wasn’t enough to push the Leafs past the defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.
Ilya Lyubushkin, acquired by TOR, is a one-way (and I mean one-way) third pairing defensive defenseman.
Brings no offense to the table whatsoever but has a consistent track record of suppressing scoring chances against. Played mostly with Chychrun this season. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/soIC6gj9EJ
—JFresh (@JFreshHockey) February 20, 2022
As the image above courtesy of JFreshHockey shows us, Lyubushkin only impacts the game defensively, as we could also infer from his statistics. Speaking of statistics, his advanced stats took a giant leap forward when he joined the Leafs, which could either be a good thing of a bad thing. Good because perhaps he was finally able to show what he was truly capable of when pulled away from the awful Arizona Coyotes or bad because his numbers might be buoyed by the Leafs.
Even prior to his play for the Leafs, being ranked so high defensively in a reduced role could see Lyubushkin complement what the Devils already have nicely. Judging by his stats, he likes to hit and will also block shots, and this would help to diversify the Devils defense set.
What Type of Contract Will Lyubushkin Get and What Should the Devils Do?
Lyubushkin is, in my opinion, an extremely intriguing option for the Devils, as their biggest struggle last season was keeping the puck out of their own net. Now granted goaltending did not help that fact at all, but both of the Devils returning right handed defenders (Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson) are more offensively focused. With those offensive minded players being balanced by more defensive minded lefties (Jonas Siegenthaler and Ryan Graves), the Devils Top-4 is all set. If they still view Ty Smith as a useful piece of the team, they could try to provide him with a steady, defense-first partner like Lyubushkin.
At this stage of his career, Lyubushkin might be looking for some term/security with this next contract, as he is in the prime of his career, and could be looking for a deal that gives him some financial security. Even with this possibility, Dobber Hockey’s projection courtesy of Alexander MacLean sees Lyubushkin signing for just over $1.4 million. For a bottom pairing defender who specializes in the name of his position, the Devils could do a lot worse. Heck, just last season they were technically paying PK Subban $9 million to play on their bottom pair!
If Lyubushkin isn’t asking for anything crazy both in terms of deal length and salary, the Devils honestly could do a lot worse for their third pairing RHD. While this hole in the lineup shouldn’t be the top priority this offseason (that belongs to goaltending) the team still has to fill it at some point. While Jonas Siegnethaler became one of the best defensive defenders in the league last season, I think Ilya still brings a physical component that would complement both the more offensive Devils defenders as well as the more cerebral defenders such as Siegenthaler.
If they can get Lyubushkin locked up for 2-3 years at no more than $1.5 million, I say they go for it. Even if the team re-signs Severson and has a prospect surpasses Lyubushkin, at that price, it wouldn’t hurt to keep him around as a #7 or even send him down to Utica to help mentor the prospects.
Who is Ilya Mikheyev and What Would He Bring to the Table?
Mikheyev, much like Lyubushkin, started his career overseas, but with Avangard Omsk. He took a bit of time to develop, but his last two seasons in their system were his best. In 2017-18, he put up 38 points in 54 games and followed it up in 2018-19 with 45 in 62. It was after this when the Maple Leafs offered him an entry level deal that brought him over to North America. His first season with the Leafs was productive, as he put up 23 points in 39 games, and looked as though he would be a solid Mid-6/Bottom-6 contributing piece.
Ilya Mikheyev, signed 2x$1.6M by TOR, had an incredibly productive first season in the NHL, establishing himself as a very strong middle six forward. His primary assist rates and PK results were especially excellent. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/3fowQR7auH
—JFresh (@JFreshHockey) October 20, 2020
His stats tanked in the abbreviated 2021 season, as while he appeared in 54 of the team’s 56 games, Mikheyev only contributed 17 points. He bounced back nicely this past season though, contributing 32 points in 53 games.
While Mikheyev would bring secondary scoring in the Bottom-6 to the Devils’ table, there has to be concern with him only have one season where he has hit double digit goals so far. In additional good news, his advanced stat rates all seemed to increase, both from last season’s struggles and in many cases, they were even up from his solid rookie season.
While he has only been in the NHL for three seasons, Mikheyev again will be 28 prior to 2022-23 beginning, meaning that as a forward, he more than likely has finished developing and is what he is at this point. The question is, is the typical Mikheyev the one that was seen in 2021 or the one that was seen in 2021-22?
What Type of Contract Will Mikheyev Get and What Should the Devils Do?
I want to start off with a contract projection (again from Dobber Hockey) in this section, as I feel it helps to better explain my eventual decision as to what the Devils should do. Alexander MacLean projects that the average annual value of Mikheyev’s next deal will be just under $3.5 million. Now, you could certainly do worse than that price for a third line winger who contributes 20 goals.
The issue that I have is that I don’t see that being the case; Mikheyev hit that total last season on a stacked Leafs team, and granted he probably would’ve had an even better total had he appeared in more contests. Looking deeper into his stats, however, we can see that his shooting percentage was WAY above his first two NHL seasons. 14.3% is over 6% higher (8.2%) than his rookie season and almost 8% higher than his underperforming 2021 season. If his puck luck winds up fading, Mikheyev could wind up being paid multiple millions of dollars for a single-digit goal total.
If I were the Devils, I would stay away from this Ilya just because of the above concern and the fact that he doesn’t really have a proven track record. If the Devils want to invest more money in their Bottom-6, I think the money would be better spent on someone who has a more proven track record or is more of an impact player. Mikheyev isn’t bad per se, but if he falls back to being a 10% or lower shooter, even if he puts a 150 pucks on net, you’re essentially getting a slightly cheaper Tomas Tatar. Considering how lambasted Tatar was at times by the fan base last season, another signing of that type could be met with negativity, especially if Mikheyev doesn’t continue to perform as a 20 goal scorer.
Overall, I’m not even going with a projection here: the Devils should pass on Mikheyev as in my opinion, he’s more of what they have and doesn’t improve the existing roster.
He may not be the player they are targeting, but I could see a player like Lyubushkin being on the Devils’ radar this summer. Having a solid defensive player on the third D-pair could help to improve the overall chemistry of the team, and at the price projected for him, there’s not a whole lot of risk even on a multi-year deal. Mikheyev, on the other hand, is a bit redundant for the Devils and additionally has a few question marks surrounding him. I would honestly be disappointed if the Devils were to offer him a deal, as he doesn’t move the needle from where the club currently is.
What are your thoughts on the two Ilyas? Do you think signing Lyubushkin would be a good plan? Do you agree or disagree with me about Mikheyev? Do you think either or both are worth the money they will order? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!