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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — Ilya Mikheyev may still be learning English, but he knows how to sidestep a question. 

The Maple Leafs’ Russian winger was asked Thursday to confirm reports that his agent, Dan Milstein, requested a trade from Toronto over the summer. Instead, Mikheyev chose to highlight the positives of his off-season. 

“No, I just enjoyed time with my family,” Mikheyev said in response to the trade request inquiry. “I just got married.”

When Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas was presented with the same question about Mikheyev on Wednesday, he would only say that “Ilya is on the team,” and that any further queries on a trade request should be made directly to Milstein. So far, Milstein hasn’t offered any public comments on the reports. 

When Mikheyev was pressed further on Thursday about whether he wants a bigger role in the Leafs’ lineup, the winger demurred again.

“I'm looking forward to the upcoming season and working hard for the team,” he said. “And I hope we have a great season.”

How does Mikheyev plan to help Toronto accomplish that?

“Just work hard,” he said. “It’s easy.”

Last season was anything but easy for Mikheyev. The 26-year-old struggled to find a rhythm throughout the year, producing just seven goals and 17 points in 54 games. 

That was down from Mikheyev’s rookie season in 2019-20, when he had 23 points in 39 games before suffering a gruesome wrist injury in late December and missing the remainder of Toronto’s regular-season schedule. 

Part of the issue for Mikheyev last year was an inability to finish. His shooting percentage on the season was a lowly 6.5 per cent, the lowest among all Leafs’ forwards. Rather than let that get him down, Mikheyev is focused on the totality of his game. 

“Sometimes this happens,” Mikheyev said of his difficulties. “It’s life. We still work. Every forward wants to score goals - 50 goals, 25; doesn't matter. Sometimes you'll score, but you should always help the team.”

Mikheyev has been a key contributor on Toronto’s penalty kill throughout his NHL tenure, averaging 1:35 per game shorthanded in 2020-21. With Zach Hyman departing for Edmonton as a free agent last summer, Mikheyev stands to see even more penalty-killing time in the coming year. 

This season could also be Mikheyev’s first chance to play a full complement of NHL games, and he’s prepared himself accordingly. 

“I work just on making more shots, more shooting practice, and, of course, the physical [side],” he said. “Because I haven't played an 82-game season yet, I don't know what that [is like]. But I think I'm ready because I played two years here in the NHL and I know how this works. For me, now it's much easier.”

Mikheyev was slotted onto a line with William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot during Thursday’s first on-ice drills of training camp. Hyman’s departure has left a massive hole in Toronto’s lineup, and there’s opportunity for Mikheyev to potentially slide more permanently into a top-six role after playing mostly on the third line last season.

How Mikheyev takes advantage of that chance is up to him.

“He, like a lot of others, will get opportunities through this pre-season to do more," said head coach Sheldon Keefe on Wednesday. "I believe in Miky greatly. He's an extremely important player for us in the things that he does and if we can get him to add more to his game and take on more that's even better for us."