When it comes to injuries this season, I’d say the Leafs still fall in the fairly fortunate category. It’s early, but knock on wood, after the initial games missed by Matthews most of the absences have been fairly manageable.
The two players presently on the injured reserve are about ready to make their return as well, or at least within the next few weeks.
Per Keefe, Mrazek had another assessment today "that went very well." Projected to get back on the ice toward the weekend. Mikheyev recently had pins removed from his thumb. Continues skating. #Leafs
— Terry Koshan (@koshtorontosun) November 16, 2021
Of course their imminent return is good news, but even if it is an attempt to stick to the initial timeline for recovery, the question needs to be asked, could these players benefit from a more conservative path back into the lineup.
In Mrazek’s case he’s already essentially rushed himself back once or been rushed by the Leafs. The results didn’t do Mrazek or the Leafs any favours. It could be attributed to not fully comprehending the severity, or it could’ve been the need to live up to his contract or to make a viable case for sharing the net with Jack Campbell, but here we are a month later and the situation is very different from the second game of the season.
At this point we can comfortably say that for now, and likely unless something significant changes, the net does belong to Jack Campbell. He’s producing at a Vezina calibre pace, and that both reduces the need for Mrazek or the desire to divide the net evenly. Instead the best case for Mrazek might be fully heal, and return to the Leafs net in the best shape possible to carve out whatever role he can with the Leafs.
The fact that the Leafs have gone on a nice little 9-1-0 run also helps buy Toronto some time with Mrazek. Campbell and the Leafs playing Toronto back into the top half of their conference has afforded the Leafs a bit of wiggle room for experimentation in the lineup, including in net. Considering the Leafs are 2.5 weeks into the anticipated 4 week recovery for Mrazek, that leaves Toronto with only one set of back to back games, and only one situation where Joseph Woll would be required in net. In fact, the Leafs could potentially hold off until Christmas without Mrazek and only have 3 back to back sets during that time. While the workload might be a lot on Campbell, it would buy the Leafs time with Mrazek and can hand him the net more frequently in the new year.
The final thing that needs to be considered with Mrazek is his three year contract. If the Leafs want to get the most out of that contract the best way of achieving that is with a 100% healthy goaltender in net. Whether Mrazek spends his entire contract in Toronto or if he’s dealt because the Leafs put their faith in Campbell, the best asset management is having a healthy Mrazek playing at his best, not fighting his health like Frederik Andersen did last season.
The story with Ilya Mikheyev isn’t entirely different. The eight week timeframe given for Mikheyev is coming up in the early days of December, and while Ilya would be welcomed back, his return isn’t entirely necessary given the current success of the Leafs.
Much like how Mrazek is an obvious upgrade over Woll, Mikheyev likely represents a stronger option for the Leafs than a number of their depth forwards and at the very least he’s capable of outplaying what we’ve seen of late from Ritchie, Simmonds, or Engvall. The upgrade is probably less pronounced than it is with Mrazek, but given that Ritchie and Bunting have struggled to maintain a foothold in the top six, there is probably some excitement around seeing if Mikheyev can be the affordable answer.
The catch to wanting to see what Mikheyev can do when he’s not full healed is that his established weakness of his hands is only going to be more pronounced, and much like bringing Mrazek back before he’s 100%, you wouldn’t be setting up Mikheyev for success.
Mikheyev’s long term injury status also throws a couple of wrenches into the plans for the Leafs. Toronto will need to move out players to reach cap compliance. The easy, but less than agreeable approach to avoid waivers and reach compliance results in the demotion of Semonyov and Liljegren, the latter being someone who has earned his spot on the Leafs. The other option would see Pierre Engvall being waived to reach compliance instead of Liljegren. Perhaps Engvall’s cap hit is enough to keep him from being claimed on waivers. The last option is the one we’ve heard the most about, and that’s the possible trade of either Dermott or Holl to fit everyone in under the cap. Dealing an affordable defenseman when you don’t have depth at the position to make room for a depth winger doesn’t seem like a smart decision either.
Mikheyev is likely looking to justify that he is deserving of a bigger role, he’s in a contract year, and wasn’t entirely happy with his situation with the Leafs last season. As soon as he’s close to being ready, he’ll want to play.
With Mrazek the return is easy, there’s no LTIR, and demoting Woll won’t be met with any anger. With Mikheyev there are LTIR and salary cap complications, tougher roster decisions will need to be made. With both players, they are in a situation where they want to establish that they are the right fit for the Leafs, and neither one of them is going to do that if they aren’t healthy enough to do so. It’s for that reason I’d hope that Toronto takes the cautious path to bringing them back.
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