In the fall, the affable Russian import arrived back in town with a brand-new wedding ring and a report that he had asked for a divorce from the organization that had lured him to this side of the pond — but had been slow to hand him prime offensive opportunities.
Eager to squelch whispers Mikheyev had made an off-season trade request through agent Dan Milstein, everyone involved spun optimistic. Pouring gasoline into a fiery market like Toronto is never wise.
General manager Kyle Dubas assured: “Ilya is going to be on the team and is going to be a big part of the team.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe acknowledged that, yes, the left winger yearned for a larger (read: top-six, power-play) role, but viewed that as a positive.
“That's a great thing as a coach — they're hungry for more, they're looking for more,” Keefe said in September. “I believe in Mickey greatly.”
Milstein stayed mum, and Mikheyev repeatedly said he only wished to work hard and help the team win.
The player’s actions through camp backed that up. Mikheyev would hang around after intense, hourlong team sessions to blast one-timers and squeeze in bonus reps on his footwork.
Keefe rewarded the impending free agent with some power-play time and top-six shifts in pre-season, adding that coveted O-zone time to his penalty-kill responsibilities.
Then Mikheyev suffered a broken thumb in his final exhibition contest, necessitating surgery and two months of healing. His ice time and power-play shifts were slurped up faster than a spoonful of chicken noodle.
As the league jumped to a 30-game head start, “The Cobra” put his head down and toiled through the second lengthy hand rehabilitation of his short NHL career.
His teammates took notice, though.
“He's had some tough adversity, and it's great to see him just work so hard all the time. Not making excuses or moping around,” says goaltender Jack Campbell, who knows a thing or two about delayed gratification.
“He just works. And as a result, he comes out and he's looking amazing.”
Mikheyev finally made his 2021-22 debut on Dec. 14 in Edmonton, only to see the Maple Leafs campaign go on a pandemic hiatus and demand more patience.
Well, Mikheyev has burst into 2022 like a player reborn.
Despite seeing just 28 per cent O-zone starts skating on David Kämpf’s effective checking unit, he scored twice Saturday versus Ottawa and sniped the game-winner Wednesday in Toronto’s 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers.
“He's been flying,” raves William Nylander. “It's great to have him back.”
Adds Justin Holl: “Getting hurt and getting back in the lineup right in time for the pause isn't ideal for him. Everyone's super pumped to see him get on the board, and we know what kind of player he is and how good he is. It’s good to see him show his speed and be a weapon for us.”
Sure, Mikheyev’s goal-a-game pace and 23.1 shooting percentage aren’t sustainable. But neither was his much-maligned 6.5 shooting percentage in 2020-21.
In a scant 96 NHL games, the late-blooming, undrafted 27-year-old has proven to be a valuable middle-six asset on a contending group. To our eye, Mikheyev’s staggered start has only made him hungrier.
Over the past two nights, he’s scored twice on the power-play and registered the game high in shots, seven Saturday and six on Wednesday.
And when he does find the twine so fine, Scotiabank Arena house DJ Cale Granton cranks one-hit wonder Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey” — his unofficial goal song.
"If I have the chance for shot, why not? Guys tell me, ‘Just keep shooting,’” Mikheyev explains.
“Of course, everyone wants to play power-play…. You can feel confidence in yourself. Of course, it’s good.”
Best of all, Mikheyev — the roster’s lone Russian, since Kirill Semyonov flew home — has only further ingratiated himself to his English-speaking peers and adapted to a foreign culture.
“He's been incredible. It’s a really tough thing to do,” Alexander Kerfoot says. “Especially a team like this, where, for his time here, he hasn't really had many other Russian guys to communicate with. His English has come a long way.
“I couldn't imagine how hard it is. But he's awesome. He handles it super well. He comes to the rink every day, works hard, and he's a fun guy to be around. You can just see him opening up more and more as he's gotten more comfortable with us teammates. And he's a pleasure to be around.”
How long Mikheyev hangs around Toronto, who knows?
But if the salary cap allows and the power-play time helps, the fit seems to be trending in the right direction.
"He makes us a deeper team. He makes us a better team," Keefe says.
“I don't think it could’ve worked out any better in terms of him getting production here early to give him a boost after such a long layoff.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Shame that Zach Hyman — returning to Scotiabank Arena in enemy orange and with an “A” sewn to his chest — was robbed of a standing ovation from 19,000-plus.
“Toronto is always going to be home for me,” says Hyman, who plans to train here in the summer. “It’s reality, right? People have been disappointed for the past couple years now, so I think everybody is used to it.
“I think [my return] will be more meaningful when there are fans in the building.”
• Auston Matthews is clearly bummed to be skating in an empty home arena, describing the scene as “one step forward, three steps back.” Yet he’s hopeful Leafs Nation turns out loud during their upcoming four-game roadie.
“We travel pretty well. So hopefully maybe some of these away games feel like home games and we can kind of get that buzz back,” Matthews said before the game. “Hopefully it's not too long that we're going without fans here because they honestly make a huge difference — and it's not the same without them.”
• William Nylander is on a seven-game point streak (five goals, seven assists) and now leads all Maple Leafs in scoring (35 points).
• Trusty ol’ stay-at-home Brodie (3-3–6) is riding his first four-game point streak in nearly four years (February 2018).
• Rumours of a hot seat no longer faze Oilers coach Dave Tippett the way they did in the early-2000s, when he was running the Dallas Stars bench.
“At my age, that stuff doesn’t bother me a bit. I’ve been around too long. And I’m with [GM] Ken Holland, who’s a good man. I don’t listen to any outside noise. The house is burning for you guys. Inside the coaches’ office, in here, we’re trying to put fires out,” says Tippett, 60.
“I don’t like the adversity, but things were coming too easy at the start of the season. We were scoring in bunches and outscoring our problems. And now we’re the other way.”