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Maple Leafs' Mikheyev Expected to Make Season Debut Against Oilers

Out for the last couple of months with a broken hand, the Toronto Maple Leafs plan to have Ilya Mikheyev back in the lineup against the Edmonton Oilers.

It's been a long wait for Ilya Mikheyev.

The Russian forward was poised to have an increased role with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, but an injury sustained during the team's final pre-season game derailed those plans.

On Oct. 9, Mikheyev was cross-checked into the boards by Ottawa Senators defenseman Dillon Heatherington. He suffered a broken hand and was forced to miss the first two months of the regular season.

At the time of his injury, Mikheyev was projected to skate on the team's second line alongside John Tavares and William Nylander. Instead, he'll debut in a familiar spot. He'll help out on the third line with forwards Pierre Engvall and David Kampf.

"We're excited for him, it's been a long process for him," Tavares said earlier in the week of Mikheyev. "He took it really tough, the injury, initially."

Mikheyev's return comes at a time where the Leafs are suffering from some depth issues, particularly on the penalty kill where the team has allowed seven goals in their last 22 kills spread over their last six contests.

"That's been exposed a little bit more even here now with [Mitch] Marner not playing the last little bit and we didn't have [Ondrej Kase for a little while," Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said on Monday. "When your penalty killer takes a penalty, it's been quite thin. Having another guy that could take on that and we think could be very good for us there."

The Leafs will also have Mikheyev fill in for Nick Ritchie on the team's second power-play unit. A carrot to dangle for the player who was looking for an increased role this season. 

Over the summer, the player's agent, Dan Milstein, reportedly requested a trade out of Toronto. The team reportedly denied the request and the issue was left alone as camp opened in September. 

Known for his exceptional speed and effective backchecking ability, Mikheyev may have been the unluckiest Maple Leaf last season. He had numerous breakaway opportunities that inexplicably didn't convert into goals. He scored seven  times in 54 games last season, and did it with a measly 6.5 shooting percentage.

"It's a matter of a little more poise at the net and a little bit more deception in his shot," Keefe said of Mikheyev. "A little more consistently getting himself on the interior of the rink. 

"I thought he was unlucky last season. I don't know how many breakaways he had but he didn't get one of them to fall for him. Those kind of things, if your luck turns a little bit, than all of a sudden confidence grows and things start to fall a bit more."

As "unlucky" as Mikheyev has been when healthy, it's the injuries where he's had the worst fortune.

During the 2019-20 campaign, he missed the remainder of what then turned out to be the remainder of the regular season after a skate blade caused a wrist laceration that required surgery.

Mikheyev is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. He carries a salary cap hit of $1.645 million and provided great value at that position for the Leafs. With the club losing Zach Hyman to free agency this past summer, there were questions about their depth at the left wing position. Michael Bunting, signed to a two-year deal this summer, has blossomed into an everyday top-liner alongside Auston Matthews. Alex Kerfoot has moved into an everyday position on the left wing after moving around the lineup as a winger or center.

It's not clear yet if Mikheyev will get back up to the second-line spot after his injury. But his path to getting back to where he was appears set to begin on Tuesday.


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