Maple Leafs Team News: Muzzin, Matthews, Nylander & Mikheyev

It was exciting but, in the end, New York Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev stopped 44 shots and beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 on Dec. 28. By doing so, the Rangers halted the Maple Leafs’ six-game winning streak.

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The Maple Leafs came into the game 2-5-1 in their second games of back-to-backs this season. Typical to the team’s recent pattern, they fell behind and came back to tie the game. Atypically, the team lost.

That the Maple Leafs have had so many come-from-behind victories recently shows they won’t quit – a great characteristic the players are showing under head coach Sheldon Keefe. However, hockey being hockey, the game needs luck and has weird puck bounces. The night before, the Maple Leafs got the lucky overtime bounce to beat the New Jersey Devils. In this game, the bounce went the other way and the Rangers won.

As the team prepares for a short two-game road trip to play the Minnesota Wild and the Winnipeg Jets, I’d like to use this post to keep fans up-to-date on Maple Leafs news.

Item One: Muzzin Is Out with a Broken Foot

I believe Jake Muzzin will be sorely missed. He broke his foot blocking a shot from Devils defenseman P.K. Subban during the first period of the team’s overtime victory in the first back-to-back game. Muzzin finished the game, but now is listed week-to-week.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Muzzin
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Maple Leafs learned just prior to the game that Muzzin would be out. Head coach Keefe put it succinctly, ”We miss Muzz. It’s more than what he does on the ice for us. There are a lot of intangibles he brings from in the locker room to the bench, talking between whistles, and all those things.”

Teammate Auston Matthews agreed that Muzzin’s absence brings a loss of leadership and physicality: “He held guys accountable in the dressing room. Obviously, we’re going to miss him quite a bit, but it’s an opportunity for others to step up.”

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Muzzin is the only Stanley Cup winner in the team’s dressing room. They don’t yet know a timeline for Muzzin’s return, and it’s unlikely he’ll return before mid-January.

Item Two: Nylander’s Scoring Streak Continues

After being benched by Keefe, Nylander has responded with more inspired play. He scored a goal and an assist in the loss to the Rangers and is on a three-game, six-point streak. He’s also scored five goals and five assists in his last six games.

Nylander Matthews Maple Leafs CP
Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews and William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

He has looked good on both top lines and works well with John Tavares and Matthews. Maple Leafs fans can only hope that one “scolding” by Keefe will be enough for the young Swede to keep his game amped up.

Item Three: Matthews Is Making the Most of More Ice Time

In an October back-and-forth with Jim Parsons, who reports rumors for The Hockey Writers and covers the Edmonton Oilers, we debated whether Matthews or the Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl was better. Parsons supported Draisaitl and I supported Matthews. Granted, Draisaitl’s numbers are better but, with more ice time, Matthews might draw closer to his Oiler counterpart for the season.

Related: Auston Matthews Is Better than Leon Draisaitl

Suddenly, Matthews is second in NHL goal scoring. He had two goals and an assist against the Rangers and now has seven goals and five assists in his last six games. Chalk that up to both increased ice time and Keefe’s encouragement for him to use his 200-foot game and take advantage of more on-ice freedom.

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

That trust wasn’t there under former coach Mike Babcock, and Matthews has since lifted his game to a higher level. He now has 26 goals and 20 assists in 40 games. The Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak leads the NHL with 28 goals.

Item Four: Is Andersen Wearing Out?

Frederik Andersen didn’t have his best game against the Rangers, which makes me wonder if his heavy workload is catching up to him. Andersen’s been playing big minutes under Keefe who uses him solidly except in back-to-backs. However, it might be time to roll the dice with Michael Hutchinson. He’s won two games in a row, although the last game he played just well enough to win.

However, the Maple Leafs have only three back-to-back games left and, if Andersen played all the games except those, his workload would be over the top. Simply, the team needs to rest him more to keep him playoff-ready.

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs Rumor: Timur Bilyalov’s on the Radar, Who’s He?

Although Andersen’s record has been good over the last two weeks, he’s had a goals-against average of 3.25 with a .899 save percentage. That’s not like the 30-year-old, who leads the NHL with 19 victories but who couldn’t pick up his 20th against the Rangers.

Item Five: Mikheyev Is Out for at Least Three Months

The good news is that Ilya Mikheyev’s wrist surgery to repair a cut artery and tendons was successful. The bad news is that the team will be without him for at least three months as he recovers from the laceration to his right hand suffered during the Devils game.

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

The 25-year-old rookie’s agent tweeted that an “accurate timeline for his return will be provided in 90 days.” In fact, because tendons take time to heal and rehab, Mikheyev might be out for the season.

His injury hits the team hard for two reasons: First, he was a good partner to the team’s top-six scorers; second, the Maple Leafs will miss his checking and penalty killing. Fortunately, he’s expected to make a full recovery.

Matthews believed Mikheyev’s absence would leave a hole and said he admired the way the 25-year-old Russian arrived in Toronto, learned a new language, and fit in with his solid two-way play.

With Mikheyev out, 23-year-old Adam Brooks made his first NHL start. Brooks has played 171 regular season and playoff games for the Toronto Marlies. Congratulations to him on playing in his first NHL game.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The team is now 12-4-1 since Keefe became head coach. As noted, the Maple Leafs head out for a two-game road trip in Minnesota and Winnipeg. It’ll be interesting to see how they fill the holes left by Muzzin and Mikheyev.

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I am interested to see some of the young Marlies such as Brooks and Timothy Liljegren with the big club. Sooner or later, the Maple Leafs defense needs its young prospects to emerge. Might this be the time?