In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll look at what happened with Nick Robertson most recently. I’ll also share the continuing good news about Ilya Mikheyev’s great training camp and will review one of the most unique experiments during Phase 3 – playing William Nylander at center if only for one scrimmage. Finally, I’ll comment on Frederik Andersen’s improvement during the camp.
Item One: Nick Robertson Drops a Line
Head coach Sheldon Keefe has moved prospect Nick Robertson all over the place, and yesterday he spent his time on the fourth line with veterans Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford. That move made Frederik Gauthier the extra forward and moved Spezza to center. As a bit of an aside, I can’t even imagine what it might be like for Robertson to be playing with an NHL legend like Spezza. It must be gold.
As he is everyday, Keefe was asked if and where the 18-year-old Robertson would be in the lineup when the team meets the Columbus Blue Jackets in the best-of-five play-in series. And, as he does everyday, the Maple Leafs head coach patiently noted that he had not made any final decisions about the postseason roster.
Keefe did note that he would see how the upcoming exhibition game against the Montreal Canadiens went next Tuesday before he finalized anything.
Item Two: Ilya Mikheyev Named Maple Leafs Phase 3 MVP
One decision that seems like a no-brainer for Keefe should be where to play his energetic Russian rookie forward Ilya Mikheyev. Obviously, Mikheyev is fully recovered from the lacerated wrist he suffered late in December. He had a heck of a training camp and was voted as the Phase 3 Maple Leafs’ MVP by the media. (from Mikheyev emerges from group of talented Leafs forwards to dominate through scrimmages,” Terry Koshan, The Chronicle Herald, 23/07/20).
Mikheyev looks now to be even better than the first 39 games he played as a rookie before his injury in New Jersey. Although he played well before the injury (scoring 8 goals and 23 points), he is even better since his return. He’ll likely be rewarded with a top-six role on the team.
Mikheyev’s been an absolute standout during the Maple Leafs’ Phase 3 training camp. He’s especially looked strong on the line with Mitch Marner and John Tavares. In yesterday’s final scheduled scrimmage of the training camp, the 25-year-old was particularly impressive, scoring a hat trick that led his team to victory.
Mikheyev shares great chemistry as a member of the Tavares/Marner line and led the training camp with five goals scored. It helps that Mikheyev’s a hard worker and has a great fit both with his new line and with the team in general. His teammates seem to love playing with him.
Given the combination of skill, hard work, and personality he exudes, I keep thinking the Maple Leafs have found both a fan favorite and one of its team’s core members for the future. I see Mikheyev being in Toronto a long time. That means general manager Kyle Dubas will push hard to sign his hospital buddy – they spent lots of time together after Mikheyev’s surgery in New Jersey watching soccer, Dubas noted.
Even coach Keefe praised his young player: “I thought he was excellent. Probably more than anybody, he is really excited and happy to be back here playing in a team environment.”
Keefe added: “He and his line, I thought, were really good. They’re playing with lots of pace and making lots of plays and had chemistry. That means a lot.”
Item Three: Keefe Lauds Kasperi Kapanen as a Training Camp Standout
In the same Terry Koshan article from yesterday, at his post-practice interview Keefe singled out Kasperi Kapanen as a forward outside his top six who stood out during training camp.
Keefe noted, “If I look at his progression through the first three days of camp on to this, Kappy has really raised this level in terms of using his speed and getting on the puck and having second, third efforts on the puck. He’s a difference-maker for us when he does that.”
Item Four: William Nylander Effective Regardless of Where He Plays
To my mind, one of the most interesting moves Keefe made during the training camp was to move Nylander around on different lines. He played with both top-six centers Tavares and Auston Matthews, and he even had Nylander center a line with Mikheyev and Adam Brooks in last Sunday’s scrimmage. As Mark Masters noted yesterday, Keefe hasn’t noticed Nylander play much differently regardless of the spot.
In an earlier Masters’ article, Keefe commented about experimenting with Nylander at center, “I thought he did well, he had the puck, did a great deal offensively. Coming up through the middle, he’s a lot more dangerous that way, so we liked that part of it. He and his line had the puck a lot so he didn’t have to defend a great deal.”
From some of the tweaks Keefe made to the lineup, it seems he’s thinking both about this season’s postseason and looking down the road into the future. He noted about Nylander, “In terms of what I see or what may have to happen for us to go to (Nylander at center) a little more in long term, I don’t have that answer. We’ll see him shift back to the wing, but it’s nice to have that option.”
At least for this postseason, Nylander will move back to the wing on the first line with Matthews and Zach Hyman, but it’s interesting to see all the options Keefe is throwing out there. Playing Nylander at center is one that might have legs into next season.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
It was good to see Andersen improve during the training camp. Notoriously a slow starter, he was true to that form at the start of the camp. However, he got hot recently. After Wednesday’s scrimmage, Keefe noted, “The goaltending on both sides was terrific, which allowed everything to stay close and be competitive.”
That’s important for the Maple Leafs to have strong postseason goaltending. Obviously, without external competition, it’s tough to see how the team measures up. But it’s no surprise that the forwards look strong. It might be that team success rests on the shoulders of the defense and the goaltending.