Make-or-break time for Nick Ritchie on Maple Leafs’ top line

Toronto Maple Leafs' Nick Ritchie had been playing on the top line with varying levels of success. (AP)

TORONTO – As recovering left winger Ilya Mikheyev circled the Scotiabank Arena ice Thursday morning, each stride sounded like footsteps coming for a run at a top-six left-wing spot.

The fleet-footed Russian’s return is not imminent.

The pins were only recently extracted from Mikheyev’s broken thumb. He is now stickhandling with lightweight orange pucks and there is no pep on his shot.

To paraphrase the old Bruno Caboclo line, he’s probably two weeks away from being two weeks away. And with the Toronto Maple Leafs winning nine of 10, there is no need to rush.

At some point, however, a healthy Mikheyev will take someone else’s job.

“We haven’t seen Ilya Mikheyev yet this season. He was a guy that had a tremendous camp for us and preseason, and we were really excited about where he was at before his injury,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.

“So, we’ve got some things to sort through there.”

What needs sorting is the same issue that needed sorting during training camp and early in the season.

As was the case in 2020-21 with Joe Thornton and Jimmy Vesey, the left wings that began in the top six were unable to hold that position throughout.

Michael Bunting has shown flashes, yet has slipped to the fourth line.

Nick Ritchie — in whom the club has investing $5 million for two seasons — is now entering his second extended trial alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

This despite registering zero goals, two assists (both on the power play), and a minus-4 through 17 games a Leaf.

Surely the contract is the reason everyone involved is trying so hard to make him stick up top.

“That is an important role. They are two good players,” Keefe said. “It’s important minutes. You’re gonna play against tough matchups.

Stream the Leafs this season with new pricing options! SN NOW STANDARD and PREMIUM let you choose how much hockey you want to watch.

“Right now, it’s Ritchie’s opportunity, and we’re looking to give him a chance here to take hold of it. It hasn’t happened here quite yet, and we’re going to try to stay with it and see what we can get out of it. But we believe we have some options there. We knew coming in that was going to be something [to figure out].”

Bunting and Ondrej Kase have each had looks alongside the big boys, but Keefe loves the consistency he’s getting from the Kase–David Kampf combo on Line 3.

With reacquired veteran Kyle Clifford set to tune up his game in the AHL, and a wild card such as Josh Ho-Sang putting up seven goals and 10 points through his first 11 games with the Marlies, there are other hungry options.

The pressure is on Ritchie to perform sooner than later.

“He would’ve liked to get off to a better start,” Jason Spezza said. “He’s a guy who, when he gets a little more production, it’ll give him more confidence. Hopefully, we can get that for him because the guy’s had a great attitude.”

The biggest Maple Leaf at least stood out in Tuesday’s win.

When he crushed Preds defenceman Mattias Ekholm into the glass, he freed Matthews and Marner for a Grade-A rush and ignited a fight with Michael McCarron.

“I was wound up,” Ritchie said. “Just a little bit adrenalin kind of thing.”

But Keefe benched him for a few shifts later in the game as punishment for committing brain-fart slashing minor.

“Not a very smart penalty,” Ritchie conceded. “A little bit of frustration, maybe, but I know not to do that anymore. … You can’t take penalties where you’re not saving a goal or something like that.”

Keefe said he spoke with the penalty-prone Ritchie before the season began about curbing the bad habit.

Stream over 1,000 games blackout-free, including the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with a subscription to SN NOW PREMIUM.

“It’s really more about the team, frankly, than it is about Nick, in that case, because I do sympathize with the type of game he has to play to be engaged. And at times you cross that line a little bit, and that’s part of what you get,” Keefe explained. “But you do need to control it there. It’s a very tight game, and retaliatory penalties like that don’t really help the team in any way.”

Moreover, they don’t help the bench or the front office with feeling like they’ve found a top-line left wing.

And if a forward doesn’t seize that gig internally, there is no doubt Kyle Dubas will go shopping for one come late winter.

Would Filip Forsberg be available for rent by then? Andrew Copp? Robbi Fabbri? The impact left wings could be few and far between.

It’s a topic we’ll surely revisit down the road.

For now, it’s Richie’s time to shine.

“Just got to keep plugging away and shooting and trying my best and getting to the front of the net,” Ritchie said. “Hopefully something falls soon.”

One-Timers Ondrej Kase needed imaging and missed Wednesday’s practice after his gutsy dying-minutes shot block during Tuesday’s win over Nashville left a mark. He had a positive morning skate and will be a game-time decision … . Kirill Semyonov will also take the warmup skate, just in case … . Timothy Liljegren will be healthy scratched for a consecutive game, as the defence rotation continues … . Jack Campbell (and his silly-good .943 save percentage) gets the start again because why wouldn’t he … . New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant refused to announce his starter, but after Igor Shesterkin’s 40-save show in this rink a month ago, it’s gotta be him, right?

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.