TORONTO — The last time Maple Leafs’ forward Ilya Mikheyev played an NHL game, he left the ice in a trail of his own blood.
Toronto was facing the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 27 when, early in the third period, Jesper Bratt’s skate blade came up and sliced an artery and tendons in Mikheyev’s right wrist. The winger was immediately transported to hospital for surgery and underwent an extensive months-long rehab process, which he’s happy to report was successful.
“Now, it's great. I feel good,” Mikheyev told reporters on a Zoom call from the Leafs’ return to play training camp at Ford Performance Centre on Friday. “I have full [movement] in my fingers and arms and everything is good now. I'm at 100 per cent, and maybe I hope more than [that].”
Mikheyev had only just begun his NHL career when the injury happened. After spending four seasons with the KHL’s Omsk Avangard, Mikheyev joined the Leafs on a one-year free agent contract for the 2019-20 season.
That gruesome incident in New Jersey abruptly halted what momentum Mikheyev was building his rookie season. Through 39 games, he had eight goals and 23 points, and even lit the lamp earlier against the Devils before getting hurt.
Mikheyev ended up staying in Newark for several days following surgery, with Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas continuously by his side. Upon being released, the real work of Mikheyev's recovery began back in Toronto, where he's been ever since.
“We started just moving the fingers, every finger,” Mikheyev said. "It's a long recovery and we did too many exercises for wrists, for fingers, for everything.”
The 25-year-old was first spotted back on the ice in early February, working closely with skating consultant Barb Underhill. A month later, he was poised to make a return to the Leafs lineup - and then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire league on March 12, delaying Mikheyev’s comeback indefinitely.
Rather than be discouraged by another setback, Mikheyev focused on becoming even better. Most NHL arenas were closed in March due to the virus, but the NHL granted Mikheyev an exemption to continue rehabbing throughout the pause, and he used that time to build strength in his wrist and overall skill set.
“We didn't know what would happened, whether we would resume play on the season or no,” Mikheyev said. “But we're professionals, we need to work because it's a tough injury and I needed to be ready if we come back.”
Defenceman Jake Muzzin saw first-hand how diligently Mikheyev approached his recovery. The two were working side-by-side most days during the pause, as Muzzin got treatment for a foot injury.
“Every day he came to the gym and we were on the ice and he was working hard,” Muzzin said. “He was focused, he never got distracted or down on himself with his situation. He came in and he worked his [butt] off, and you can see it now. He's flying out there, he's making plays, he looks good. We're lucky to have a guy like that on our squad.”
And if there’s a silver lining for Mikheyev, it’s that he can bring all the improvements made through months of one-on-one training into the Leafs’ postseason push.
The NHL’s return to play plan has Toronto facing the Columbus Blue Jackets in a best-of-five qualifying round series starting Aug. 2, from which one team will advance into a 16-team playoff field. The tournament will be Mikheyev’s first taste of the NHL’s second season, and he’s more than ready to perform.
“It's bad on one side to have an injury, but on the other side, I had a chance to work with fitness coaches and we improved skills, shots, passes, skating,” he said. “It's good for me and I'm really happy that I have this opportunity [in the playoffs].”
“This guy just loves being at the arena, loves being in the gym and has really taken advantage of this time,” added Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. “He really hasn't taken much time away from it, so I'm sure he's as hungry as anybody just given that he's returning from an injury but just that he's been working a long time to be prepared for this.”
Keefe didn't hesitate either to pop Mikheyev right back into a top-six role with John Tavares and Mitch Marner for camp, where he's had no trouble keeping up. After seven months off from game action though, Mikheyev may still feel some rust once the real games begin, but Tavares doesn’t think he’ll be far behind anyone else.
“With how hard he’s worked and his love for the game and his determination and focus he puts in on a daily basis, it's not going to surprise me for him not to really miss a beat,” Tavares said. “Everyone else has had four months off as well. And the way [Mikheyev’s] worked and built his game back up with the skill set that he already has is extremely impressive. He's flying out there; it's incredible. I'm excited that he's coming back. I really do think he's going to make an impact pretty quick.”
Given what he's been through, it might be some time before Mikheyev can forget what happened to him last December. But the chance to be fully healthy and back playing again, with so much on the line for Toronto, would make the journey all worth it.
“I remember how I cut my wrist, I remember everything. It was scary, but you can't change anything,” he said. “I’m okay and we're working on the future. I work hard with the guys. I'm happy I had the opportunity for a long time to help my health, my arms, my wrists. I feel good with this.”