Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Growing Mikheyev & Nylander, Keefe’s Plan

It was the second game in a row that the Toronto Maple Leafs played without fans in the stands. It turned out to be a 4-2 win over an Edmonton Oilers’ team without Connor McDavid. And, winning is always a good thing. However, as Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe noted, the game had a bit of an exhibition-game feel to it.

In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at the emergence of two key players to the lineup and some of the changes that coach Keefe has made to his own game management. 

Related: 4 Changes Maple Leafs’ Coach Sheldon Keefe Should Make This Season

First, I’ll look at how well Ilya Mikheyev has returned to the lineup after so many games away recovering from his injury. Second, I’ll look at how William Nylander is expanding his game this season to become – as we stand right now – the team’s leading point producer. Finally, I’ll take a look at how I believe coach Keefe is thinking past the regular season and trying to change some of his game management in preparation for the postseason playoffs.

Item One: Ilya Mikheyev Scores Another Power-Play Goal

Ilya Mikheyev scored his third goal of the season in his third game back. Interestingly, all three goals have been special-team goals. This was his second power-play goal; and, his first goal of the season was short-handed. 

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Mikheyev now has scored three goals in the last two games since returning on December 14 from hand surgery. His goal was the game-winner and it came with just less than half of the third period remaining. 

Mikheyev hasn’t missed a beat – or better said – he’s beating more quickly since his return than he was before his injury. He’s pumping shots at the net like crazy, with 13 shots in his three games. Every game he looks to me to be the fastest player on either team.

He’s been playing on the third line with center David Kampf and either Ondrej Kase or (last night) Pierre Engvall, plus he’s been given lots of special-team minutes. That third line was strong before he came, but Mikheyev’s addition has made it even stronger. Does that mean he might get some time with the top-six units; or, will coach Keefe choose not to disrupt a good thing?

Related: The WHA – A Look Back at the Upstart Hockey League

In an interview after the game, Keefe noted that Mikheyev’s successful return to the lineup “makes us a better team. … It is not just because he scored here. … He makes us a deeper team, a better team.”

It sounds as if Keefe was as anxious to have Mikheyev back as the young Russian was in coming back. Keefe told the media present that “I thought he had a great camp and a great preseason. He was taking advantage of any of the additional opportunities that we were giving him.”

Keefe added that, because of Mikheyev’s good camp, “we wanted to try to get him off to a good start here and try to pick up where we left off. That is why we have had him take a spot on the power play right away and get some minutes that way. I don’t think it could’ve worked out any better in terms of him getting the production early to give him a boost after such a long layoff.”

Item Two: The Growing Emergence of William Nylander

The first goal of the game was an unlucky bounce for the Oilers. After it was scored, it was first given to William Nylander, but then it was ruled that John Tavares had deflected the puck with his stick before it bounced off the end boards and then off goalie Mike Smith’s skate into the net. As a result, Nylander was credited with two assists on the night.

Related: 3 Takeaways From Maple Leafs Win vs Oilers – 1/5/2022

Both Nylander’s assists came on the two Maple Leafs’ first-period goals. Those assists kept the 25-year-old Swede’s seven-game point streak going. He’s scored five goals and added seven assists on that streak and, on the season, has 15 goals and 20 assists (for 35 points). 

Nylander is now the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer. He’s a point ahead of both Tavares and Auston Matthews. He’s now collecting more than a single point a game and his last four have been multiple-point games. That’s a kind of consistency Nylander hadn’t yet shown over his career. His 19 points during his last 12 games put him in the category of an elite scorer. 

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After the game, coach Keefe put it succinctly. “Willy (Nylander) is just expanding his game,” which is something Keefe noted he’s been wanting Nylander to do. Keefe has now given Nylander penalty-kill minutes and has added him to the team’s defense at the end of the game when an opponent pulls its goalie.

Item Three: Keefe’s Changing Game Management Strategy

Keefe also noted that one of his plans this season has been to help players “expand their roles within our team. We need everybody to be comfortable playing in every situation, whether it is Mikheyev on the power play, or Willy on the PK or out with the goalie out.”

From my perspective, Keefe’s already thinking about the postseason. I had critiqued his postseason game management because he kept throwing the same players out again and again until they were gassed. This regular season, he admitted that “We can’t rely on just the same people all the time. We are trying to give as many people as possible opportunities.”

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Keefe added that it was “why, in a 3-2 game coming out of a timeout, … I wanted to get that line back out there. I thought they had done a good job throughout the game. I challenged them to get the job done in that defensive situation.”

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The team now heads out on the road for a series of tough games. It first plays the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night. Then the Maple Leafs roll into Las Vegas to play the Golden Knights on Tuesday and back-to-back on Wednesday in Arizona against the Coyotes. Finally, they play the St. Louis Blues on Saturday the 15th. 

Related: Maple Leafs’ Biggest Problem Is Not the Core Four

After that, the schedule is up in the air.

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