TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who skated in two groups at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday ahead of their preseason game against the Montreal Canadiens.
A serious injury led to a funny nickname for Ilya Mikheyev, who's been dubbed "Cobra" by some teammates. The Russian winger had his wrist lacerated by a skate blade on Dec. 27, 2019, which led to his arm being in a cast.
"My arm stood like this," Mikheyev said while demonstrating the elevated look for reporters.
Does Mikheyev like snakes?
"I scared of snakes," he admitted with a small smile, "but, it's ok, just [a] nickname."
Mikheyev has been a snakebitten scorer during his time in the National Hockey League. He's trying to change that this season and, after a run mostly on the third line, earn a bigger role with the Leafs. He'll get an audition tonight on a line with John Tavares and William Nylander.
"These guys have big skills, of course, and I have to help them get the puck in all zones," Mikheyev noted.
"I just hope he's himself, the player that he is," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "He's had a really good camp. He's a big guy who skates extremely well, has the puck a lot, gets it to the offensive zone. You want him to create opportunities when it's time to create opportunities, you want him to finish his chances when he gets those chances and it's a really good opportunity for him here tonight. He has played with them in the past so it's not entirely new."
Free-agent signing Michael Bunting got a look beside Tavares early in camp and earned positive reviews.
"It's a very important position for us," said Keefe of the open top-six job. "The player who gets the opportunity to begin with will be held to a high standard ... I don't know, to be honest, if we'll have a consistent player there."
Mikheyev produced just seven goals in 54 games last season despite firing 107 shots on net. The potential for more offence appears to be there.
"I've seen it in practice," said Mitch Marner. "He's got the scoring touch, it's just sometimes you get in your own mind and squeeze the stick too hard and stuff doesn't go in for you and you get more mad."
Teammates plan to keep reminding Mikheyev of all the value he brings even when he doesn't score.
"He wants to continue being able to grow himself offensively," said Tavares, "but any team that wins and has success, you see how many key players aren't always counted on to score and they do so many different things and he's one of those guys for us."
Nylander is finding his voice within the Leafs dressing room.
"I wanted to become a little bit more of a leader on the team," the 25-year-old said of his mindset this year. "As I've gotten older I've learned a few things and maybe grown a little more in the role. I'm not trying to do anything special, just talk a little more and say what I think."
"Willy always has a presence, but he's probably more vocal now," observed forward Alex Kerfoot. "He always works extremely hard and knows what he needs to do to get himself ready, but maybe he's doing a little bit more now to help other guys and push other guys to get to the next level."
Keefe believes Nylander's new approach is tied to his strong performance in the recent playoffs when he led the team in goals (five) and points (eight).
"It's hard to be a leader if you're trying to find your game and make an impact consistently, but he found another level last season and through the playoffs," Keefe pointed out. "He was a lot more vocal in that series than he's been and he's carried some of that forward into the early goings of this camp."
"He seems really focused," said Auston Matthews, "and just really dialed in right now. He looks really, really determined. He's a big part of this team. When he's on, he's an incredible player. We need him to be the best he can be and so far he's looked extremely well. It's been fun to watch."
Marner is looking forward to getting reacquainted with Leafs Nation.
"It will be great," the 24-year-old winger said. "I got to play in front of them in that Blue-White Game [on Friday], which was a lot of fun, but this atmosphere should be different."
Five hundred and fifty vaccinated health-care workers got into the building to watch Game 7 of the playoff series against the Canadiens in May, but Marner hasn't played in front of a really big home crowd since the pandemic began. Ten thousand fans watched Toronto's first home pre-season game and Scotiabank Arena should be half full again tonight.
Marner's previous pre-season game this year came on the road in Montreal.
What did Marner miss most about playing in front of the faithful?
"Just the feeling of having them with you," the Markham, Ont., native said, "and just kind of hearing them behind you and cheering you on whatever happens in the game. It's a lot of fun to be part of that."
It's the sort of unconditional support that you won't find on social media. In the past, Marner has spoken about trying to ignore social media at key moments. In the wake of May's playoff collapse, he came up with a new strategy to tune out the noise.
"Just get rid of it completely," he said. "That's the way you got to do it. You know, just take yourself away from it and try and be in the here and now. I mean, there's always good things said, but there's always bad things so, for me, it was just better deleting some things and get off of it completely. I just let my team handle all that stuff. And, that's kind of how I handled it this past summer."
Is there more pressure in Toronto when you're a hometown kid?
"Probably," Marner acknowledged, "just because you live here all year round. But there's pressure on anyone on this team or management, it doesn't matter where you're from."
"I think it's just different for everybody," said Tavares, who's from Oakville, Ont. "Mitchy handles it well and I think he's only going to continue getting better [by] getting to know himself through his experiences and how he continues to grow and evolve and mature in how he deals with things, internalizes stuff, and deals with stuff on a daily basis."
There was supposed to be a shootout, regardless of the regulation result, following last night's pre-season game in Ottawa, but it got scrapped at the last minute. What happened?
"We had our players all selected to go well in advance," Keefe said. "The referees seem to be coming over each game and asking the coaches if they want a shootout and [Senators coach] D.J. [Smith] threw his hands up and didn't really care, didn't want one, and sent them over to me and I said I didn't really care, especially with us playing a back-to-back. So, the referees, more or less, made the call. Either way, I was cool with it."
Following tonight's game, the Leafs will head to cottage country for a team-bonding trip.
"Over half our team has been training in our facility all through the off-season and have been here for a great deal of time so getting away for a couple days is a nice thing," Keefe said.
The coach noted that before the pandemic started, the Leafs would often start their training camp on the road, which allowed guys to get familiar with new teammates in a different setting.
"It will be a lot of fun," said defenceman Justin Holl. "I know we're going golfing tomorrow ... you don't get a lot of opportunities to do stuff like this during the year, because we're so busy."
The Leafs wrap up their pre-season schedule on Saturday.
Lines for Leafs in tonight's pre-season game:
Ritchie - Semyonov - Marner
Mikheyev - Tavares - Nylander
Gusev - Brooks - Amadio
Seney - Der-Arguchintsev - Gabriel
Defence pairs TBA, but will include Rielly, Brodie and Liljegren
Lines at practice (non-playing group):
Robertson - Matthews - Simmonds
Bunting - Kerfoot - Spezza
Engvall - Kampf - Kase
Kopacka - Abramov - Ho-Sang
Sandin - Holl
Hoefenmayer - Dermott
Dahlstrom - Biega
Kivihalme - Duszak