In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll share what’s happening with young Nick Robertson in training camp. I’ll also talk about the health of John Tavares and note how Ilya Mikheyev has shown exponential growth during the season. Finally, I’ll talk about the rumors that there will be a change of team direction should the Maple Leafs lose to the Columbus Blue Jackets during the play-in round.
Item One: Nick Robertson Practices with the Reserves
The report from the Maple Leafs training camp yesterday is that Robertson is now practicing with the team’s reserves. He’s been one of the bigger stories of the training camp and, regardless of where he ends up, he has so far proven he belongs with the team and the team has proven to Robertson that he’s part of its future.
The 18-year-old Robertson is coming off an amazing season with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, and he hasn’t slowed down. It’s like he knows where he’s going and he’s set his sights on getting there – now! Why wait?
During his first Maple Leafs training camp experience, he was turning heads and twisting his teammates in circles. Training camp reports suggest that he hasn’t stopped impressing everyone. It’s just that, starting in Friday’s practice, he’s now impressing from the reserve group and not the first group. According to reports, Friday was a day of separating the team into new skating groups that might better reflect what the return-to-play roster will look like.
After starting camp with Maple Leafs regulars, Robertson was shifted to the reserves. If this separation continues, it looks as if Robertson has a definite place with the Maple Leafs, just not this season.
Still, when all is said and done, there’s no doubt the Maple Leafs are pleased with his progress. Like the pesky little brother that wants to go wherever his big brothers go, he’s worked hard, shown skill and drive, and has pushed the team’s regulars to the point where he’s earned their respect. The message he’s sending is that he’s there and he’s coming. He’s pestered them and they’ve noticed.
Elliotte Friedman suggested that Robertson represents an opportunity for the Maple Leafs to warn their regulars there’s someone in the organization who’s after their jobs. Better push hard.
Item Two: Sheldon Keefe Believes John Tavares Is Finally Healthy
It seems as if so many NHL injuries remain hidden from fans. Reading between the lines, that seems true this season about Maple Leafs captain John Tavares. If fans wonder why his 2019-20 regular-season play didn’t seem quite as consistent as we’ve come to expect, it might have to do with the oblique injury he suffered last summer.
In simple terms, an oblique injury is usually caused by rotating and tearing the abdomen’s core muscle. When that happens, stretching one’s abdomen can be horribly painful, which makes it tough to move your arms or body. Hockey players with such injuries need to avoid rotating when they’re recovering from this injury. However, that’s impossible and hinders simple acts like shooting or passing. Obviously, that’s the injury Tavares played with all season.
After training camp yesterday, Keefe was asked how Tavares looked. His answer was telling in two ways. First, it suggests that Tavares was likely more injured than anyone said. Second, it shared what the head coach thinks about young Ilya Mikheyev’s place with the team.
About Tavares, Keefe noted, “I think he looks excellent, first of all. I do think he is healthy. He had a few different things that were nagging at him throughout the season. The time off has really benefited him. He has also put in a lot of work away from the ice even before Phase 2 began. He was really set up in terms of the training he had been doing himself. The work he has been putting in on the ice — he has really, really been working and looks excellent.”
Then Keefe added about Mikheyev, “We have had him (Tavares) with Mitch (Marner) and Mikheyev within the Phase 2 groups all the way through. Those guys, really, just haven’t missed a beat.”
That’s great news for the Maple Leafs.
Item Three: Ilya Mikheyev Shows Amazing Courage and Growth
When we first met Mikheyev, he was affable and engaging – but needed an interpreter to answer questions. An interview video from yesterday’s training camp shows just how far the young Russian has progressed in his ability to engage North American media.
There he stood, after Friday’s practice, answering questions posed by the media all by himself – no interpreter – just him. Certainly, he spoke with a Russian accent; but, his English was fluent. He understood the questions posed by the media, and he answered without a hitch.
Since December, not only did Mikheyev heal and rehab his wrist, but he became well-versed in an entirely new language. During the first part of the season, then head coach Mike Babcock noted that he didn’t think Mikheyev understood his directions. Now, Mikheyev – although he speaks with a thick accent – understands everything.
To me, that’s pretty amazing. Furthermore, the fact that he stands in there without blinking shows much about his personality. I was totally impressed. This young guy’s going to be a fan favorite for years to come.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
Sometimes we hockey commentators can overstate things as we chase stories to share with fans of the team we’re covering. A recent example is the propensity to overstate the relative weight given to the upcoming best-of-five series with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Sure the Maple Leafs want to win and will be disappointed if they don’t. However, it doesn’t represent a watershed for the organization’s decision-making or philosophy.
Lately, a number of Maple Leafs commentators have suggested that, should the Maple Leafs lose to the Blue Jackets, that loss will mean the organization will “change direction” and move away from the vision of what a team should look like that’s being carried out by team president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Kyle Dubas, and head coach Keefe.
I don’t think there’s a chance that will happen. Even if the Maple Leafs get swept by the Blue Jackets, there will be no change in direction coming. The goal will continue to be what it’s been since 2015 when Auston Matthews was drafted. The Maple Leafs are building an offensive-minded, puck-control, skill-not-size, speed-not-muscle, creative-not-structured team whose goal is to consistently play in the other team’s end of the ice.
Certainly, if the Maple Leafs have a long playoff run this season, Dubas’ job attracting players on team-friendly salaries is improved – think Jason Spezza. However, the team’s philosophy will remain the team’s philosophy for as long as this group of organizational leaders remains in place.
The organization has bet the house on this vision and, although the team hasn’t seen postseason success yet, there’s no argument that this team’s a perennial contender. And that fact should make die-hard Maple Leafs fans – who remember just how bad this franchise has been for the past 50 years – happy.
The team is not perfect now, but it’s a very good team. And this season it has one more chance to chase the Stanley Cup. That’s exciting.