The Toronto Maple Leafs are not afraid to target European free-agent signings. Nikita Zaitsev, Igor Ozhiganov, Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman were scouted and signed out of the KHL and SHL, with varying degrees of success.
Now, it is Ilya Mikheyev’s turn to make a name for himself in the biggest hockey market in the world. Mikheyev was heavily courted by a few teams heading into the summer, including Vegas and Chicago. But in Toronto, Mikheyev adds depth to the left side that is easily the weakest forward position on Toronto. Of course, being a 24-year-old rookie with no NHL experience means he won’t be gifted a spot — he’ll have to fight it out with Trevor Moore and Nic Petan to be a regular contributor to the club.
But what exactly does he bring to the table? Mikheyev is a skilled winger who can play a physical game and can finish plays with ease. He’s a solid backchecker and can kill penalties, all while putting pucks in the net at a regular rate. In the NHL, you could do much worse than having such a player as your third-line winger.
Mikheyev isn’t the only European free-agent signing looking to make an impact this season. Here are five others who should make some noise in the NHL in 2019-20:
(Note: Those whose NHL rights were held by a franchise prior to arriving, such as Nikita Gusev, have been excluded.)
Alexander Yelesin, D, 23 (Calgary)
An injury to Juuso Valimaki means the Flames will need depth to fill his depth spot on the blueline. Enter Yelesin, who, after talking to multiple teams, chose the Albertan squad this summer in hopes of immediately cracking the roster. Calgary does have solid depth on the blueline and Oliver Kylington and Brandon Davidson will do everything to try and limit his opportunities, but Yelesin has a good shot at some solid playing time this year. Just 23, he earned a spot on Russia’s initial World Championship roster for the first time in his career after solid play in Euro Hockey Tour action this season. Yelesin brings a good mix of physicality and defensive awareness and isn’t likely to be caught making dumb decisions with the puck. Oh, almost forgot: Yelesin recorded a 102 miles-per-hour slapshot during KHL all-star weekend this year.
Jani Hakanpaa, D, 27 (Anaheim)
This isn’t Hakanpaa’s first crack at the NHL, but he’s hoping it will be his first successful attempt. He spent three years in North America trying to crack the St. Louis Blues earlier in the decade, but to no avail. While not a big offensive defenseman, he improved his skills with the puck during his four-year tenure in Finland and was a major reason why Finland won the World Championship in 2019 thanks to playing heavy minutes on a team with no full-time NHLers. If anything, Hakanpaa offers extra depth for a team that was a total disaster defensively last year and will push Michael Del Zotto for playing time.
Gaetan Haas, C, 27 (Edmonton)
Haas has been on the radar of NHL teams for a few years, and not because of his scoring ability. Coming off a Swiss league title with SC Bern, Haas is a reliable two-way forward who you can trust to play a smart defensive game and his wrist shot is deceptively dangerous. Edmonton has a lot of depth down the middle right now and if he ends up in the AHL, he has a clause that allows him to return to Switzerland after just a few weeks. But he’s a safe signing, one that can bridge the gap in the bottom-six before Cooper Marody and Ryan Mcleod are ready for full-time duty.
Jakob Lilja, LW, 26 (Columbus)
Lilja has a chance to fill a depth role for the Blue Jackets as the team looks to promote from within after losing multiple key forwards this summer. Despite a tough final stretch to the SHL with just five points in his last 20 games, Lilja was the top scorer in Sweden with 32 points in his first 37 games. But scoring won’t be his job in Columbus, as the team will need him to be a quick backchecker who can hold his own in physical battles.
Anton Wedin, LW, 26 (Chicago)
Wedin is a small power forward but one with tremendous speed and a good all-around skill set, allowing him to fill any role asked of him. The competition for one of the last winger spots in Chicago is a tight one, but even if he starts the season in the AHL, it won’t be long until he earns a call-up opportunity. Ryan Carpenter and Dominik Kubalik will make life challenging on the left side for Wedin, but he has the tools to be an effective fourth-line winger in the NHL.
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