TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who opened their return to play training camp on Monday, practising in two groups at the Ford Performance Centre.
Out since sustaining a significant laceration to his right wrist on Dec. 27, Ilya Mikheyev appears ready to reclaim a role in Toronto's top-six forward group. The Russian rookie skated alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner on Monday scoring the opening goal of the camp scrimmages.
"He's been eye-opening to watch," Marner gushed, "how quick and how much better he's really gotten. I was talking to [Jake Muzzin] a bit when they were both injured and he kept saying, 'This Mikheyev is a monster and turning into an animal in the gym and on the ice.'"
Mikheyev picked up 23 points in 39 games before the skate blade of New Jersey Devils forward Jesper Bratt cut him on a freak play leading to surgery to repair an artery and tendons that were severed.
"Skating with him now he's shooting a lot better, seeing the ice a lot better," Marner said in a Zoom session with reporters. "From my point of view, in these scrimmages we've been playing, he's been good finding the open ice and that lane for me or JT to find him and he's not afraid to go to the net either."
Head coach Sheldon Keefe said Mikheyev looked “excellent" in the Phase 2 sessions noting the 25-year-old has been skating with Muzzin, who was working his way back from a broken knuckle, basically the entire time since the season was paused on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Those guys really haven't had any time off," Keefe revealed. "They continued to rehab their injuries and skated all the way through for the most part."
One area where Mikheyev still needs to improve, though, is his English language skills.
"We're working on that a little bit," noted Marner with a grin, "but he's gotten a lot better. He understands a lot more now, which is great. I'm always just trying to talk to him on the ice and explain things and explain plays and keeping him knowing what I'm going to do and I like to hear his feedback on what he's trying to do when he goes down the wall and stuff. When you're on the ice and call for it, he knows [what's going on] very well and he's aware of where you are, which is something he's gotten a lot better with."
#MapleLeafs Ice Chips with @markhmasters: Ilya Mikheyev, out since December with a wrist injury, looked good while skating alongside Tavares & Marner...— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) July 13, 2020
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Nick Robertson was feisty as he makes a push to steal a spot - https://t.co/JgDgLLO1K8#TSNHockey pic.twitter.com/Ceo3p3fEzV
Nick Robertson skated on a line with Egor Korshkov and Adam Brooks, which means the 18-year-old has a lot of work to do if he plans on cracking the lineup for Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in their best-of-five qualifying round series. And Robertson certainly seemed determined to make an impression on Monday.
"He was working hard trying to get better, that was clear during our scrimmage," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “He's a guy that's going to continue to push, that's just his nature, so it's always good to have people like that on board."
Robertson, who lit up the Ontario Hockey League with 55 goals in 46 games with Peterborough last season, was feisty in the scrimmages and drills. On more than one occasion, a veteran player had to look back in annoyance as the five-foot-nine left winger hounded the puck.
"He worked hard," Keefe said. "I've come to expect that from him. He's another guy that over the last three weeks I've been watching in these sessions, we've come to get to know him better as a player and his work habits are exceptional."
"He's got a tremendous shot and release," observed John Tavares. "He gets on top of goalies and the puck is around him all the time. Guys like him just have a knack. He has a great head on his shoulders. We'll do everything we can to help him."
If Robertson is to steal a spot, it will likely be as the third line left winger. Pierre Engvall filled that role on Monday skating alongside Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen.
Nick Robertson vs. Jake Muzzin on the first day of Leafs camp: pic.twitter.com/VKJg8FQvsX— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) July 13, 2020
Auston Matthews confirmed he tested positive for COVID-19 during the season pause, but noted he was "pretty much asymptomatic."
"Didn't really hinder my training," the Leafs centre said in his first media session since April. "I was able to do stuff at home. Obviously, wasn't able to leave or anything. I think that's really the only thing that kind of took a hit for me. I was skating beforehand and having to take two and a half, three weeks off obviously kind of catches up to you."
Most of the Leafs have been skating at the Ford Performance Centre during Phase 2 while Matthews only arrived in the final week leading up to training camp.
"Those guys who have been here the entire time certainly are at a higher level," said Keefe. "All things considered, Auston's worked well, worked hard and he's done what he could given his circumstances and it won't be long before the conditioning matches up with his ability."
Matthews seemed gassed at times during the first on-ice workouts of camp, but in fairness the schedule was designed to test player fitness and other guys were also hunched over their sticks. Keefe had the team separated into two groups with only three forward lines in each, which reduced the rest time between drills. And then the scrimmages featured only two forward lines, which further wore down the players.
"A couple weeks of not being able to do much, so kind of out of the norm of a typical training camp where you're going in there feeling good so it's going to be a little bit different," Matthews acknowledged.
Teammates didn't seem all that concerned, though, with Tavares noting that Matthews has proven to be a fast starter during his NHL career. Matthews opened this season, for example, with seven goals in the first seven games.
Leafs players wore 'Black Lives Matter' shirts during off-ice activities on Day 1 of camp.
"We just want to be part of the conversation and do what we can to help have positive change in a very important matter that we all take very seriously," said Tavares.
The Leafs captain called it a "player-driven" decision to wear the shirts, but was quick to point out there was organizational support behind the move.
"We as a group tried to have some conversations about it," Rielly said. "I think what we realized is not all of us have had the experiences that people around the world have had and I think that this is just our small way to keep the conversation going and to really try to acknowledge the fact that this is an ongoing thing and it's gonna take a lot of work. We're completely committed to supporting the movement."
"It was a great initiative by our players," said Keefe, "obviously one that, as an organization, we're very supportive of. On a day where everyone wants to talk about hockey, everybody is excited to get back to playing, it's important to have that – the Black Lives Matter movement – be prevalent. We want to make sure that that's not lost in all of this and that it is a very important issue that we haven't forgotten about. We want to be a big part of making positive change."
Although he was spotted at the practice facility, Timothy Liljegren did not take part in the on-ice work. Tyler Gaudet, a forward, filled in on defence during Monday's sessions.
Leafs lines in Monday's practice and scrimmages:
Nylander - Matthews - Hyman
Mikheyev - Tavares - Marner
Engvall - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Clifford - Gauthier - Spezza
Robertson - Brooks - Korshkov
Agostino - Petan - Malgin
Muzzin - Holl
Rielly - Ceci
Dermott - Barrie
Sandin - Marincin
Rosen - Kivihalme
Unfit to play: Timothy Liljegren