I don’t know how other Toronto Maple Leafs fans feel after the past two days, but I’m excited. It’s great to see the team back on the ice. It’s also nice to find on-ice related topics to write about. In fact, most of the topics in today’s edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors are from the rink.
First, I will share the latest news about how well Ilya Mikheyev looks since returning from injury. Second, Nick Robertson seems to be a driven young man, who’s trying to crack a spot in the Maple Leafs’ postseason lineup. Third, Timothy Liljegren is reportedly “unfit to play.” Finally, we hear from Auston Matthews about his COVID-19 positive test.
Item One: Ilya Mikheyev Is Growing Before Our Very Eyes
In late December 2019, New Jersey Devils Jesper Bratt’s skate blade severed an artery and tendons in Ilya Mikheyev’s right wrist in a scary and freak accident. Mikheyev was rushed to the hospital and had life-saving surgery to repair that laceration. The young Maple Leaf is fortunate to be alive.
Given the severity of the laceration, it’s good news that he has returned and seems completely healed. Not only is Mikheyev healed, but he seems to be much improved and much “bigger.”
In fact, TSN Maple Leafs reporter Mark Masters, who’s outside the bubble but checking daily with players now that the team has returned to their Ford Performance Centre training camp, shared his conversation with Mitch Marner about Mikheyev.
Marner “gushed”: “He’s (Mikheyev) been eye-opening to watch, how quick and how much better he’s really gotten. I was talking to [Jake Muzzin] a bit when they were both injured and he kept saying, ‘This Mikheyev is a monster and turning into an animal in the gym and on the ice.'”
Apparently, when both Muzzin and Mikheyev were injured they worked out and skated together. Head coach Sheldon Keefe noted that the odd twosome has been working together the entire time the NHL’s regular season has been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Keefe also noted that the 25-year-old Russian looked “excellent.”
During a Zoom session with reporters after practice, Marner continued: “Skating with him now he’s shooting a lot better, seeing the ice a lot better. From my point of view, in these scrimmages we’ve been playing, he’s been good finding the open ice and that lane for me or JT (John Tavares) to find him and he’s not afraid to go to the net either.”
Based on early line matchups, it looks like Keefe might move Mikheyev into a top-six role. The Russian skated with Tavares and Marner on Monday and even scored the first goal in training-camp scrimmages.
Item Two: Nick Robertson Looks Great but Might Be Here for Experience
Very early news from camp suggests that the Maple Leafs might not share my enthusiasm for pushing über-successful, young Nick Robertson (who scored 55 goals in 46 games with the Peterborough Petes last season) into a prominent role. In a post last month, I had suggested that – if I were Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas or Keefe – I would want to see what I had in Robertson and would consider playing him.
However, Robertson has skated down the depth chart on a line with Egor Korshkov and Adam Brooks. That likely means the 18-year-old will be watching from the press box during the best-of-five, play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Still, Robertson looks like a tiger on the ice. He’s relentless.
Morgan Rielly and Keefe had the same description of Robertson: “He worked hard,” Keefe said. Rielly added, “He was working hard trying to get better, that was clear during our scrimmage.”
They then expanded their assessments:
“He’s a guy that’s going to continue to push, that’s just his nature, so it’s always good to have people like that on board.” (Rielly)
“I’ve come to expect that (hard work) from him. He’s another guy that over the last three weeks I’ve been watching in these sessions, we’ve come to get to know him better as a player and his work habits are exceptional.” (Keefe)
Finally, captain Tavares weighed in: “He’s got a tremendous shot and release. He gets on top of goalies and the puck is around him all the time. Guys like him just have a knack. He has a great head on his shoulders. We’ll do everything we can to help him.”
Mark Masters also noted, “On more than one occasion, a veteran player had to look back in annoyance as the five-foot-nine left winger hounded the puck.”
Watching the video attached to the tweet above, it’s easy to see why Muzzin found Robertson to be a pest.
Item Three: Timothy Liljegren Deemed “Unfit to Play”
Here’s what we know about young Swedish defenseman Timothy Liljegren: he’s been deemed “unfit to play.” Under the NHL’s privacy protocols, that might be all we know for a while since teams aren’t required to share information other than a player being unfit to play.
I will share more information about Liljegren as I learn more.
Item Four: Auston Matthews Apparently Got Lucky
Auston Matthews admitted that the report that he had tested positive for COVID-19 was accurate. The NHL does not allow teams to release specific information about positive tests, so Matthews might be the only NHL player to identify himself during the league’s return to play.
Regarding his health, Matthews reported, “[It] didn’t really enter my training. I was able to do stuff at home, obviously wasn’t able to leave or skate or anything. That’s really the only thing that took a hit for me. I was skating beforehand, and having to take 2-½, three weeks off the ice catches up to you, but pretty much asymptomatic, felt for the most part pretty normal for the two weeks. I did my quarantine and I’m feeling healthy now, so it’s all good.”
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
For Matthews to say, “It’s all good” is really great news that he’s feeling better. Reports noted that he looked tired during the on-ice workouts, but that’s likely because the focus was on fitness, so all the players looked bagged, and, because Matthews’ skating took a hit, he needs to catch up.
Everyone hopes it’s “all good” with Matthews. There’s so little known about the virus’ long-term effects that it could be years before we know what to expect for survivors of this deadly virus.
More news is coming, I’m certain.