The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Ilya Mikheyev is likely headed for the longer-term injury reserve list. The 27-year-old fell awkwardly, landing on his hand in the final preseason game. The Leafs will know more about the speedy winger’s prognosis on Monday. While no one wants to see a player get injured, this setback came at the most advantageous time possible for the team, offering a small silver lining.
Again, I’ll restate no one wants to see an injury. Mikheyev clearly made the team and appeared to be starting the season on the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander. Sheldon Keefe was not mincing words, “it’s a big loss for us. He had a good camp. He is a great player for us, does a lot of things for us.” This statement came just moments after the head coach said Mikheyev’s injury does not look to be short-term.
Maple Leafs have Depth
However, the training camp revealed the organization has more depth than it has had in years. That was made evident when Nick Robertson was assigned to the Marlies. Two years ago, he finished playing junior for the Peterborough Petes and walked right onto the ice for the Maple Leafs to participate in the play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Mikheyev’s injury occurred just hours before the team would be making final cuts. The roster has to be set by Monday afternoon. Any player on waivers this late in the preseason could be picked up by another team. “We’ve had a lot of guys with good camps,” said Keefe. “A lot of guys already down with the Marlies who had good camps. Guys who are still here who didn’t play tonight have had good camps. Like any other player, it’s going to create opportunities for someone to step up here.”
Bunting, Kerfoot Could be in the Top Six
Not only was Mikheyev likely starting on the second line, but it also appeared he would be a penalty killer. Keefe admitted he would like some more time to evaluate players and line combinations earlier in the week. He also stated that there may not be a consistent player on the second line. So while we can only assume he was going to start Mikheyev, the injury will allow other players to prove they belong in the top six. The front runner appears to be Michael Bunting, who began camp beside Tavares. Alex Kerfoot has also been part of the conversation.
The injury also changed how the Maple Leafs were creating their roster while remaining salary cap compliant. Mikheyev makes $1.65 million a season. If he is assigned to LTIR, that will open up enough salary cap room to keep two players making under $800,000 a season. “The situation now changes, depending on what happens with Ilya Mikheyev,” said Keefe. “All that affects every decision; it’s just the reality of a flat cap world.”
Tavares was excited to start the season with the guy known affectingly as Souperman, “I really hope it is nothing major. I know how determined he is to want to continue to grow his game and make it a bigger impact.” As much as Mikheyev has processed on the ice, Tavares was most impressed with his growth off the ice. “He’s just getting more and more comfortable in his own skin here. You can just tell he’s starting conversations more with one another because he is more comfortable with his English. You can just tell there’s just a determination to him wanting to be a difference-maker in all areas of the game. He had a tremendous campus, great attitude. We love him, so hopefully nothing too major.”
Remember this training camp started with rumours surfacing Mikheyev requested a trade. Given what captain Tavares said, there are no hard feelings. In fact, the team was moving forward with their reported commitment to Mikheyev being a big part of the team. Now, on his birthday, he and the team are waiting to hear when he will be back.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.