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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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After making his NHL debut earlier this month, Ilya Mikheyev was asked about the adjustment coming from Russia to Canada. The 25-year-old KHL import told reporters that he really likes soup and finds it strange that it's not as popular here.

"I don’t know why you don’t eat soup," he said to chuckles. 

The comment created a stir on social media. 

His agent, Dan Milstein, start lobbying for a soup sponsorship. 

The Maple Leafs asked fans on Twitter for their best soup puns. 

Bob Hartley, who coached Mikheyev with Omsk Avangard, said his team would be sending over some cases of borscht, Mikheyev's favourite, to help ease the transition and share with his new teammates. 

So, why does Mikheyev love soup so much? 

"Because in Russia, every day we eat it," he explained. "Every day."

Mikheyev says soup is usually a staple of his lunches, which he eats after practice. 

"When teammates see when I eat soup they always ask me, 'You like it? Good, good,'" says Mikheyev with a sheepish smile. 

"There's soup here every day now so I guess he's turned something around," said a grinning Auston Matthews

Truth is the kitchen at the Leafs facility always has soup readily available, it's just never been this big of a deal. 

"Everyone keeps talking about it," noted Kasperi Kapanen. "Russians are big into soup, I guess, and he loves soup so whatever works for him."

Matthews enjoys his mom's chicken tortilla soup, but doesn't consider himself a devotee like Mikheyev. 

"Pretty much just when my mom cooks it," Matthews said, "I’m not going out to dinner and asking for soup usually."

"I dabble," said goalie Frederik Andersen. "The guys in the kitchen do a really good job. We usually have a soup every day and I try and get a little extra hydration that way. I don't mind a good soup."

Whatever you think about soup, everyone agrees that whatever Mikheyev's doing is working. The left winger, who has skated on the third line with centre Alexander Kerfoot and Trevor Moore, actually leads Toronto in five-on-five points with five in six games. That's no small feat considering the language barrier.

"Now, I feel better every game," he said, "because I better understand what I need make on the ice."

Mikheyev scored his second goal on Saturday in Detroit beating Jimmy Howard to a Kapanen clearance/flip pass and shooting the puck into an empty cage. 

"He can fly," observed Matthews. "He's super fast, strong on the puck, I think probably the biggest adjustment for him was getting on the smaller ice and he's adjusted really well and been a force for us so far."

"It's not easy," said Kapanen, "especially from Russia, I think they play a little bit differently over there. The way he's played these first six games has been more than I expected out of him. I think he's surprised everybody."

Mikheyev didn't do any English interviews in training camp, but is becoming increasingly comfortable in front of the cameras and doing more scrums. 

"He'll figure out shortly he shouldn't have learned," joked Mike Babcock. 

The Leafs coach is quick to credit Mikheyev for combining hockey smarts with book smarts. 

"A really educated guy," Babcock noted. "A university graduate. His girlfriend had already been to Boston College on one of those visitation (programs) so he had more of an English base."

Mikheyev's been watching old episodes of Friends on Netflix to improve his English, but there's a big difference between sitcom dialogue and heat-of-the-moment instructions during games.  

"As much as you speak English, you don’t speak English on the ice when it’s going 100-miles-an-hour and people are yelling out things and trying to show you things," Babcock said, "and, so, what we've learned already as a coaching staff is when we think we taught it good, we haven’t taught it good enough so teach it better."

As his comfort level rises off the ice, Babcock predicts Mikheyev's creativity on the ice will increase as well. 

"I think there's a lot more there," he said. "I don't think his hands have shown, offensively, at all what they're going to. He's got a great stick, he's smart, he picks things up fast, but he's more comfortable right now without the puck, defensively."

And while Mikheyev is off to an impressive start, he doesn't want to dwell on that. 

"I don't think about this," he said after Saturday's game. "I just work, because this is my first NHL season, other country, other mentality and a new system for me." 

At one point in Saturday's scrum he stopped mid-sentence and apologized to reporters for not remembering the right English word. And while the language barrier is something he's still working on, it's abundantly clear just how much this chance means to him.  

"I very happy every day," he said with emotion in his voice, "when I come to practice rink or Scotiabank (Arena) on the game, I very happy."

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Exit Sandman. 

Rasmus Sandin, the big revelation at Toronto's training camp this year, is done in the NHL for now. The Leafs sent the 19-year-old defenceman down to the Marlies on Monday. 

​"We can't get him on the power play in front of the guys we got," explained Babcock, "can't get him on the penalty kill in front of the guys we got, so in the end, a real good night is [playing] 14 minutes, and we just think in managing our assets and getting our team to be the best we can … that this is the best thing for his development."

Sandin played 12:18 on Saturday in Detroit and averaged 12:13 through his six games. 

"Everything's about the Leafs winning, for sure," said Babcock, "but part of that winning is making sure your players develop right. The guys we've overcooked seem to get to a higher end than the guys we rush."

In the third period against the Red Wings, Sandin was rocked by a high hit from Justin Abdelkader

"I didn't like it last game when he got hit in the head," Babcock said. "A (19)-year-old, I didn't have much appreciation for that ... but I also say to myself, 'What am I doing?' ... you have to look after him the best way you can and sometimes you got to be a prudent parent."

Sandin will now play a prominent role with the Marlies where he took big strides last season. 

"What's the matter with being the best player?" asked Babcock rhetorically. "Having more fun than anyone else, having the puck more than everyone else. I never heard one kid ever complain about being the best player."

Kevin Gravel, 27, was called up from the AHL and skated alongside Travis Dermott, who is working his way back from off-season shoulder surgery, at Monday's practice. Martin Marincin moved up to skate with Justin Holl on the third pair. 

Dermott, due back in November, wore a regular sweater for the first time with the main group.

"He's just coming, to tell you the truth," said Babcock. "He's feeling better ... Obviously, our training staff, our therapy staff, think he's on his way and now he's got to get up to speed in contact and drills and get going."

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After scoring just six goals in his first 107 NHL games, Frederik Gauthier struck for two in the first four games this season. That led to a tongue-in-cheek Instagram post featuring his goal celebration and the hashtag #ontheroadto50.

Well, he might not get 50, but the player affectionately known as The Goat is definitely putting an emphasis on creating more. 

 "That was one of my goals this year was to try and contribute more offensively," said Gauthier, "and stay as good as I was defensively or better."

Gauthier didn't register a point on Saturday, but he had several good chances and fired five shots on net, a career high, while playing more than 11 minutes for the first time this season. 

At practices this season, Gauthier has been staying out late and working on his hands in-tight. He'll start with his back to the net at the edge of the crease and then an assistant coach will flip a puck in his vicinity with Gauthier turning and firing it home. 

Where's his confidence level right now? 

"It's a lot higher than it was," he admitted. "I feel more confident. I feel things are going well and now, I guess, I'm just going to see where it goes."

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Several young fans showed their support for Matthews on Saturday night in Detroit by wearing fake moustaches or drawing facial hair onto their upper lip. 

"It was actually pretty funny," Matthews said. "Cool to see that. I guess it's a pretty easy thing, go grab a moustache at a convenience store and toss it on and there you go. Some of their moustaches looked better than mine!"

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Lines at Monday's practice: 

Johnsson - Matthews - Nylander

Kapanen - Tavares - Marner

Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Moore

Timashov - Shore - Gauthier

Petan - Spezza - Hyman

 

Rielly - Ceci

Muzzin - Barrie

Marincin - Holl

Gravel - Dermott

 

Andersen

Hutchinson

 

Power play units at Monday's practice: 

Rielly 

Marner - Tavares - Matthews 

Johnsson 

 

Barrie 

Kerfoot - Petan ^ - Nylander 

Kapanen 

^ Likely placeholder for Moore, who worked with PK