How Leafs’ Mikheyev turned injury, pandemic into blessings in disguise

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TORONTO — In an alternate universe, Ilya Mikheyev would have returned to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup months ago.

He was on track to play before the end of March, according to his agent Dan Milstein, potentially even challenging the minimum timeline issued after having an artery and tendons in his right wrist cut by a skate blade in the first game after Christmas.

Instead, Mikheyev’s plans were placed on pause by COVID-19 — presenting a setback and an opportunity at the same time.

While most NHLers scrambled to their off-season homes for months of limited physical activity, he stayed right where he was. There wasn’t so much as a passing thought given to returning to Russia to spend time with friends and family.

“We never once discussed that,” Milstein said Tuesday. “He never stopped rehabbing.”

That helps explain why Mikheyev has made such a strong impression through the first couple days of Leafs summer training camp. You’d never know that he hasn’t taken a shift since that scary night in New Jersey when Jesper Bratt’s skate accidentally cut him or that he went months without being able to properly grip his stick to allow the tendons to heal after surgery.

Mikheyev and Jake Muzzin, recovering from a broken hand, were the Leafs granted special dispensation to work their way back from injury during the pause. They continued using the practice facility through the end of March, April and May and jumped directly into small-group workouts with teammates starting June 8.

It’s left them no rust to knock off as the NHL gets back up and running again.

In fact, by all indications Mikheyev has added new dimensions to his game while jumping directly back into a prime-time spot alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner.

“He’s been kind of eye-opening to watch,” said Marner. “How quick and how much better he’s really gotten from my point of view.”

“The shot is a big thing,” added head coach Sheldon Keefe. “The way the puck’s coming off his stick, particularly off the pass, is impressive.”

Given the serious nature of Mikheyev’s injury, and the fact it affected the hand he uses to grip the top of his stick, you would never have expected him to improve his release. But there was also nothing to forecast the seven months of extra skating he’d get since last playing, many of it spent alongside Leafs skills consultant Denver Manderson.

He also won favour with teammates by how he approached the off-ice regimen drawn up by the strength coaches. Jason Spezza said “there’s a lot of guys cheering for [Mikheyev] to play well” after seeing his level of commitment.

“He’s a guy that I admire,” said Spezza, who has 1,084 more NHL games on his resume. “He worked, and he worked all through this time. He worked when he wasn’t sure when he’d be able to come back. Just really impressive, the dedication to the game, and I think there’s a lot of respect for him in this locker room.”

One moment that stands out came when Mikheyev and Muzzin joined the team on the road for its California swing in early March. Hours before a practice at the Los Angeles Kings suburban facility during that trip, those two were behind the rink doing sprints and other strength exercises.

Muzzin was howling out the encouragement. He absolutely loved what he was seeing.

“I’ve been talking to Muzz quite a bit when they were injured together and he kept just saying ‘This Mikheyev’s a monster and he’s turning into an animal in the gym and on the ice,’” said Marner.

At the time he was injured, it seemed like such a shame that it happened just as Mikheyev was finding his way in North America. He’d spent the previous four seasons in the KHL and had responded well to a recent bump into Toronto’s top-six, scoring four goals in
six games when his wrist got severed .

But as it’s turned out in this most bizarre year, with the Leafs now preparing for a best-of-five against Columbus in the middle of summer, Mikheyev could be poised to make an even bigger impact than before. In addition to the important 5-on-5 minutes he’ll see with two of the team’s biggest offensive stars, Keefe has him tabbed to kill penalties.

Credit the 25-year-old NHL rookie for putting himself in position to earn an elevated role.

Even when it was unclear if the season could be saved amid the pandemic, Mikheyev kept grinding through workouts and on-ice sessions while seeking out any piece of news that told him it might not all be for naught.

“He was thirsting for information,” said Milstein, his agent. “He’d say ‘When can we start playing? When can we start playing? When do the playoffs start?’

“He missed hockey so much.”

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