Maple Leafs Insider Says Robertson Will Struggle to Crack Top-6

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a couple of days into the preseason now, as we’re slowly inching towards the season opener on Oct. 12 against the Montreal Canadiens. While most people probably have a rough idea of what the team will look like after all the cuts are made, as always, there are still some players vying for roster spots who don’t have a guaranteed place on the team. Some of these players include Adam Gaudette, Denis Malgin, and Nick Robertson.

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In this piece, we’re going to focus on Robertson. With head coach Sheldon Keefe stating that there’s a spot in the top six up for grabs, the former second-round pick is one of the candidates who could be a fit. He has one of the most deceptive shots in the entire organization, and he had 16 goals and 28 points in 26 games for the American Hockey League (AHL)’s Toronto Marlies last season. The issue is that nearly all of his strengths lie in the offensive side of the game, so if he makes the team out of camp, it doesn’t make sense for him to play with defensive-minded players in the bottom six. 

Nick Robertson Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Robertson, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

My two THW colleagues, Peter Baracchini and Andrew Forbes, and I had the opportunity to interview David Alter, a beat reporter for Sports Illustrated’s Inside the Maple Leafs, last week on our podcast, Sticks in the 6ix. We tackled many topics, and among them, I decided to pick his brain about Robertson’s chances to make the top six. To put it bluntly, Alter said that if Robertson wants to make the team out of camp, he’s going to have to not only have a good preseason but a stellar one at that.

Alter: Robertson Has Some Kinks to Work Out 

I asked Alter about the possibility of Robertson securing a spot next to John Tavares and William Nylander if he plays alongside them in the preseason and performs well. The conclusion we came to was that there are some extra steps that he’ll have to take if he wants that job out of camp.

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“If he’s used in that spot in preseason games, and shows more patience and discipline in his game, which means no careless turnovers, no trying to go for offense at full speed and being caught out of position, which I saw a lot of with him at the prospects tournament, then there’s a chance.” Alter said. “But he’s gotta win that spot, and he’s gotta show that he’s matured as far as his two-way game is concerned.”

Alter went on to mention that Robertson’s contract being so easy to send up and down from the Marlies leaves the Maple Leafs with some more options for him, and that simply having a good training camp wouldn’t be enough for the California native to slide into that spot. 

“He’s gotta be flawless, and really show that he’s head-over-heels over the next guys who are slotted with NHL experience in that spot. So, it’s going to be tough for him. Let’s put it that way.”

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As he mentioned, Robertson had some issues at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament that the Maple Leafs would like to see ironed out before granting him a role as prestigious as a top-six winger to start the season. Oftentimes, it seemed like because he was one of the more experienced players at the tournament, he was trying to do a little bit too much with the puck, and it was costing him chances. This obviously isn’t a cause for concern seeing that he’s only 21 years old, but it shines a light on what he needs to do better if he wants to leapfrog the list of veterans who are competing for the same spot he is. 

Injuries Could Increase Robertson’s Chances, But They’re Still Slim

We recorded this interview last Thursday, which was before it was announced that Tavares had an oblique strain that was going to keep him out of the lineup for a minimum of three weeks. This will include the start of the season, so all of a sudden there’s an extra forward spot up for grabs. It’s safe to assume that Alex Kerfoot, who has replaced him in that second-line centre role in the past, will do so once again. Along with this, Gaudette is day-to-day with a shoulder injury and Pierre Engvall is out with an ankle injury, to be re-evaluated on Oct. 3.

But even with these extra injuries, has Robertson done enough to take that roster spot yet? Does he deserve it more than Alex Steeves, who scored two goals in his first preseason game? What about Malgin, who also scored a goal in his first game and seemed to develop some chemistry with Nylander? Remember, his skillset will likely only work in an offensive role this season, so does he deserve it more than a veteran like Calle Jarnkrok, who’s played that filler role in the top-six for previous teams before? As of right now, the answer is no. 

As I said, Robertson’s defensive game still needs some work, and unlike somebody like Steeves or Malgin, it would be a waste to use him with defensive-minded players in the bottom six. He had 13:31 of ice time in the Maple Leafs’ second preseason game against Ottawa, registering a shot and no points. He didn’t necessarily look bad, but it’s not the type of performance he needs to jump into that top-six.

Nothing Wrong With Starting Robertson in the AHL 

A month or so ago, I wrote an article on why the Maple Leafs had to set Robertson up for success in 2022-23 if they planned to use him on the team. The premise of the piece was essentially everything I’ve said today, that it would be a waste to use him in a fourth-line role where he’s only playing a handful of minutes per night. I also said that if they aren’t going to use him in the NHL, they would be better off trading him, which I think still holds true. But it’s also important to remember that Robertson starting the season with the Marlies isn’t a bad thing for his development. 

It’s obvious that Keefe and his coaching staff aren’t 100 percent satisfied with Robertson’s play so far, and that’s to be expected for a 21-year-old second-round pick. His fast-tracked path to the NHL has been as much of a curse as it has been a blessing. It seems to have cast lofty expectations for a player who’s still young and working out kinks in his game. He’s clearly proven that he has nothing left to learn offensively in the minors, but starting him there to fix these issues in his defensive game can only be a good thing for the former Peterborough Pete.

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The Maple Leafs are back in action tonight to face the Canadiens, and while the lineups haven’t been released yet, it’s possible fans will get their first look at Matt Murray in between the pipes. With five games left in the preseason, there’s still time for Robertson to force the Maple Leafs’ hand and earn that coveted top-six spot in the lineup. But, like Alter said, it’s going to take more than just a good preseason to grab it.

You can listen to our full interview with David Alter here, or wherever you stream your podcasts.

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