TORONTO – The way Ilya Mikheyev both got into and left the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp, who would be shocked if his critical contract season never got through?
In the autumn, the gracious Russian import arrived back in the city with a brand new wedding ring and a report that he had asked for a divorce from the organization that had lured him to this side of the pond – but had been slow to give him good offensive opportunities .
Eager to dampen the whisper Mikheyev had made an out-of-season trade request through agent Dan Milstein, and everyone involved was optimistic. Pouring gasoline into a burning market like Toronto is never wise.
General manager Kyle Dubas assured: “Ilya will be on the team and will be a big part of the team.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe acknowledged that yes, the left longed for a bigger (read: top-six, power-play) role, but saw it as positive.
“It’s a great thing as a coach – they’re hungry for more, they’re looking for more,” Keefe said in September. “I believe a lot in Mickey.”
Milstein remained a mother, and Mikheyev repeatedly said he only wanted to work hard and help the team win.
The player’s actions through the camp supported it. Mikheyev would hang around after intense, hour-long team sessions to blow up one-timers and squeeze bonus repetitions on his footwork.
Keefe rewarded the impending free agent with some power-play time and top-six shifts in the pre-season, adding the coveted O-zone time to his responsibility to kill penalty kicks.
Then Mikheyev got a broken thumb in his last show competition, necessitating surgery and two months of healing. His ice age and power-play shifts were sloppy up faster than a spoonful of chicken noodles.
As the league jumped to a 30-game lead, “The Cobra” laid its head down and slipped through the second long hand rehabilitation in its short NHL career.
His teammates, however, noticed it.
“He’s had some tough setbacks and it’s great to see him just work so hard all the time. Not to make excuses or tumble around, ”said goalkeeper Jack Campbell, who knows a thing or two about delayed gratification.
“He just works. And as a result, he comes out and he looks great.”
Mikheyev finally made his debut in 2021-22 on December 14 in Edmonton, only to see the Maple Leafs campaign go on a pandemic break and demand more patience.
Well, Mikheyev has jumped into 2022 as a reborn player.
Despite only 25 percent of the O-zone starting to skate on David Kämpf’s effective control unit, he scored twice on Saturday against Ottawa and snatched the game-winner on Wednesday in Toronto’s 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers.
“He’s flown,” William Nylander shouts. “It’s nice to have him back.”
Adds Justin Holl: “Getting hurt and getting back in line just in time for the break is not ideal for him. Everyone is super pumped to see him get on the board and we know what kind of player he is and how good he is “It’s good to see him show his speed and be a weapon for us.”
Sure, Mikheyev’s goal-a-game pace and 23.1 shot percentage are not tenable. But it was also not his much-maligned 6.5 shot percentage in 2020-21.
In a sparse number of NHL games, the late-flowering, exhausted 27-year-old has proven to be a valuable middle-six asset in a fighting group. To our eyes, Mikheyev’s staggered start has only made him hungrier.
Over the last two nights, he has scored twice in the power play and recorded the match high in shots, seven on Saturday and six on Wednesday.
And when he thinks the yarn is so fine, Scotiabank Arena house DJ Cale Granton hits a single hit marveling at Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey” – his unofficial goal song.
“If I have the chance to be shot, why not? Guys say to me, ‘Just keep shooting,'” Mikheyev explains.
“Of course everyone wants to play power-play … You can feel confident in yourself. Of course it’s good.”
Best of all, Mikheyev – the lone Russian on the watch list since Kirill Semyonov flew home – has only further ingested himself with his English-speaking peers and adapted to a foreign culture.
“He’s been incredible. It’s a really difficult thing to do,” said Alexander Kerfoot. “Especially a team like this, where in his time here he has not really had many other Russian guys to communicate with. His English has come a long way. .
“I could not imagine how hard it is. But he’s great. He’s super good. He comes on the field every day, works hard and he’s a fun guy to be with. You can just see him open. “more and more as he has become more comfortable with us teammates. And he is a pleasure to be with.”
How long is Mikheyev hanging around Toronto, who knows?
But if the pay ceiling allows, and the power-play time helps, it looks like the fit is going in the right direction.
“He makes us a deeper team. He makes us a better team,” Keefe says.
“I don’t think it could have worked better compared to him getting the production here early to give him a boost after such a long break.”
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• A shame that Zach Hyman – who returned to the Scotiabank Arena in the enemy’s orange and with an “A” sewn on his chest – was robbed of a standing ovation of 19,000 plus.
“Toronto will always be home for me,” says Hyman, who plans to train here this summer. “It’s reality, right? People have been disappointed for the last few years now, so I think everyone’s used to it.
“I think [my return] will be more meaningful when there are fans in the building. “
• Auston Matthews is clearly annoyed at skating in an empty home arena, describing the scene as “one step forward, three steps back.” Still, he’s hopeful that the Leafs Nation will show up loud during their upcoming four-game roadie.
“We travel pretty well. So hopefully some of these away games feel like home games and we can somehow get that buzz back,” Matthews said before the game. “Hopefully it’s not too long before we go without fans here because they honestly make a huge difference – and it’s not the same without them. “
• William Nylander is on a seven-game scoring streak (five goals, seven assists) and now leads all Maple Leafs in scoring (35 points).
• The faithful, stay-at-home Brodie (3-3-6) runs his first four-game points series in nearly four years (February 2018).
• Rumors of a hot seat no longer bother Oilers coach Dave Tippett, as they did in the early 2000s when he steered the Dallas Stars bench.
“At my age, that thing doesn’t bother me a bit. I’ve been around too long. And I’m in it [GM] Ken Holland, who is a good man. I do not listen to outside noise. The house is burning for you. Inside the coaches’ office, in here, we try to put out fires, ”says Tippett, 60.
“I do not like the adversity, but things came too easily at the start of the season. We scored in droves and overcame our problems. And now we are the other way.”