Maple Leafs Team News: Tavares, Mikheyev, Toronto Marlies & Kapanen

What an up-and-down season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Just when it seems they have some things figured out, the team almost immediately proves that it hasn’t. Although several Maple Leafs players are scoring at more than a-point-a-game, things simply don’t seem to be clicking.

Related: Maple Leafs Problem: Is Kapanen Helping the Tavares Line?

The Maple Leafs beat the teams they should beat, but don’t seem to play well enough against the better teams to pull out victories. As I note later in this post, by the end of October, Maple Leafs fans should have a bit of a better handle on what this team is made of.

In this post, I will try to keep Maple Leafs fans up-to-date with the news that’s surrounding the team. There is one thing the team is not, and that’s boring – there is plenty of news.

Item One: Tavares Breaks His Thumb

Suddenly, because Morgan Rielly fired a puck towards the net, the season immediately became more complicated. That Rielly shot hit captain John Tavares in the hand, and he suffered a broken finger. The word from the Maple Leafs official site is that Tavares will miss at least the next two weeks. After that, he’ll be re-evaluated.

Montreal Canadiens Brett Kulak Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares
Montreal Canadiens defenceman Brett Kulak and Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Missing games is a rarity for Tavares, who has played every single game of the last two seasons. Prior to the injury, he had three goals and seven points in eight games and was just starting to get on a roll. Currently, according to the depth chart, it looks as if newcomer Alexander Kerfoot will jump from the third line to the second to take Tavares’ spot.

Item Two: Mikheyev Scores Third Goal of the Season

Young Russian Ilya Mikheyev simply won’t stop. In the team’s 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday evening, he scored his third goal of the season and had five shots on net. Mikheyev plays what coaches probably call “a simple game.” He skates; he shoots; he plays defense. Who knew?

In fact, the question “Who knew?” is a good one when it comes to Mikheyev. When he was signed, fans wondered if his game could translate from the KHL to the NHL? Could he even make the Maple Leafs line-up?

Obviously, the season and Mikheyev’s career is young. There also remain cautionary critics, for example, one post was titled “Expectations need to be kept in check for Ilya Mikheyev.” However, most fans and hockey writers have jumped solidly on the bandwagon. I know I have.

Mikheyev’s NHL start has been more than effective. In fact, few would have guessed he could be this impactful. In eight NHL games, he has seven points. He’s played in all situations, and he’s excelled.

The Maple Leafs’ gamble (although it wasn’t much of a gamble for a high-spending team, signing him for $925,000 for one season) has paid off. I’m wondering now, with Tavares out of the line-up, if Mikheyev will find himself regularly skating with the team’s top-six.

In the Washington game, Mikheyev scored on a breakaway to give the team a 2-0 lead in the first period. He started the game skating with Kasperi Kapanen and Alexander Kerfoot, but head coach Mike Babcock moved him up to a line with Mitch Marner and John Tavares for at least three shifts during the third period.

Although often criticized for refusing to make in-game adjustments, that hasn’t been Babcock’s M.O. this season. In regard to Mikheyev, was moving him to the top six a show of confidence or might it hint that something’s brewing of a more regular change? It’d be interesting to see how Mikheyev might do with more ice time and stronger offensive players.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

I would never pretend to be smart enough to tell general manager Kyle Dubas his business, still from my perspective I hope the team announces that they’ve signed Mikheyev to a longer-term contract. Everything points to him wanting to stay, and even this early I can’t imagine the Maple Leafs wanting to risk him leaving.

Item Three: Marlies Start Season 4-0

When Dubas signed a host of players with NHL experience to cheap contracts during the off-season, it was a way to stockpile NHL talent in case something happened with the Maple Leafs. However, the impact of those signings has been felt on the entertainment value for Marlies’ fans.

Related: Turning Pro vs. Playing College Hockey: Which Is Better?

In short, the Marlies are flying this season. The team has won its first four games of the season for the first time since 2007-08. Three Marlies [Pontus Aberg (3 goals, 2 assists), Egor Korshkov (4 goals, 1 assist), and Jordan Schmaltz (1 goal, 3 assists)] have scored at least a point in each of the Marlies’ first four games. And, they’re not even the leading Marlies scorer.

Finally, the Marlies haven’t allowed a goal on the penalty kill this season, and the team’s power play is second in the league at 30.8% (5 scores in 14 attempts).

The leading Marlies’ scorer? That would be Jeremy Bracco, who’s on fire this season. Last season, Bracco finished second in AHL scoring (79 points in 75 games) and he’s already had six assists in four games this season.

Maple Leafs Bracco Canadiens Lehkonen
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jeremy Bracco battles Montreal Canadiens forward Artturi Lehkonen (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

He’s undoubtedly ready to help the Maple Leafs offensively, but he plays right-wing and he’s in tough playing behind Kasperi Kapanen, Mitch Marner, Trevor Moore, and William Nylander. That’s a tough group to crack.

I’m sure Bracco will make his NHL debut sometime later this season. Is it possible that Dubas might be looking at his line-up and wondering who he might add if he traded Kasperi Kapanen? It’s too early for that, isn’t it?

Related: 11 NHL Teams Without a Stanley Cup

Speaking of Kapanen, he’s scored five points in his last four games, but he’s now been pushed down to third-line play and spends almost no time on the power play. His first goal of the season was short-handed.

What’s Next With the Maple Leafs?

The most immediate concern for the team is to see what kind of second-line unit the team can throw together with Tavares out for two weeks. Right now, there’s practice time to make some changes to the top-six forward units. The Boston Bruins come to town on Saturday.

In fact, the Maple Leafs have a host of interesting games coming throughout October. They face the Bruins twice in four days, at home and in Boston. Between those games, they entertain the San Jose Sharks and old teammate Patrick Marleau on Oct. 25 at home. They travel quickly to Montreal for a HNIC game on Saturday, Oct. 26, and play the Washington Capitals on Oct. 29 at home.

San Jose Sharks' Patrick Marleau
San Jose Sharks’ Patrick Marleau (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

By the end of the month, we’re going to know a lot more about this Maple Leafs team is made of.