During this time of darkness and uncertainty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to look at the positives in the hockey world. The NHL’s 2019-20 season and playoffs may very well be cancelled, and it’s hard to say when exactly we’ll see our favourite teams take the ice again. But luckily for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans, there is one shining ray of hope on the horizon for next season. Enter 18-year-old prospect Nick Robertson.
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ve probably heard about Robertson and his historical season in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). The Maple Leafs second-round draft pick tallied a whopping 55 goals and 86 points through 46 games for the Peterborough Petes, placing him in rarefied air.
With nearly 1.2 goals per games played (G/GP), Robertson’s scoring pace placed him seventh all-time in the history of the OHL, just narrowly behind NHL Hall of Famer and former Maple Leaf Eric Lindros. Perhaps even more impressively, the last time an OHL player scored at a better rate than Robertson was Pat Peake in 1992-93. Even Maple Leafs captain John Tavares, who achieved exceptional status to play in the OHL as a 15-year-old, couldn’t top Robertson’s mark as he buried 72 in 67 games (1.075 G/GP) back in 2006-07. Simply put, we may have just witnessed the best goal-scoring performance in the modern era of the OHL.
It’s clear that Robertson’s goal-scoring talent is special, but there’s a lot more that makes him such an exceptional player. And that’s why he’ll be a Maple Leaf next season.
Robertson Has the Drive to Succeed
It goes without saying that every hockey player works hard and strives to be the best, especially once you get to the higher levels. What makes Robertson unique, though, is that even among his hard-working peers, his tenacity and unwavering effort stands out. It stands out so much, in fact, that Scott Wheeler of The Athletic devoted an entire piece of his 10-part “The Gifted” series from last summer to Robertson and his work ethic.
As I wrote in my guide to scouting, hockey jargon like ‘playing with urgency’ masquerades as having something to say without saying anything. It’s often a cop-out when an evaluator doesn’t know how to put their pulse on what exactly makes a player good (his talents) or made a player successful in a given game (it’s not just because he worked harder than the night before!),” says Wheeler. “But ‘The Gifted’ is about the exceptions. It’s about the kids who do something that may not work for everyone else work for them. And every so often, qualities of effort and competitiveness smack you in the face, even as an external audience. Nick Robertson is that guy. He’s the spark plug 17-year-old who manifests the bulk of the plays he makes in a game by sheer force or will. He’s a hunter.from: “The Gifted: Leafs prospect Nick Robertson is a rare case study in the value of effort” – The Athletic – Jul. 31, 2019
Wheeler goes on to showcase several clips of Robertson winning battles, stealing pucks, and creating chances and goals simply by outworking his opposition. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 164 pounds, it’s clear that the diminutive sniper is far from an intimidating physical force, yet he somehow manages to chase (or hunt, as Wheeler likes to say) down opponents and take the puck seemingly at will. Of course, that’s a lot easier to do against teenagers who — like Robertson — are far from fully developed, but it speaks to his hunger, fearlessness, and willingness to do whatever it takes to win.
That same hunger comes across in Robertson’s drive to be the very best.
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“He’s driven, and that’s part of what we like about him is, aside from the skill and the hockey sense, this kid lives, breathes and eats hockey,” John Lilley, the Maple Leafs’ director of amateur scouting told Jonas Siegel of The Athletic. (from ‘Belligerence. Pugnacity. Truculence? Nope. Meet Nick Robertson, the new model for future Maple Leafs,’ The Athletic – 6/25/19)
It’s easy to talk about Robertson’s goal scoring and exceptional play on the ice, but when the people that know him best can’t help but rave about his work ethic, it’s evident that the kid has all the tools to become something special. Once touted as a potential middle-six option with some scoring punch, it’s now looking like the sky is the limit for the feisty winger.
The Maple Leafs Will Give Robertson the Chance to Prove Himself
Robertson may be one of the best players in junior hockey right now, but that’s no guarantee he’s ready to play in the NHL. Luckily for him, the Maple Leafs are always looking for cheap depth options, what with their seemingly never-ending cap crunch. On an entry-level contract, Robertson fits that bill perfectly.
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“Looking back and reflecting on it, I think we probably should have given him more of a look in training camp and probably rewarded him with an exhibition game or two to see how he did there,” general manager Kyle Dubas said of Robertson’s camp with the team last season. (from ‘Toronto Maple Leafs plan to give Nick Robertson ‘every opportunity’ to crack lineup,’ Peterborough Examiner, 04/01/2020) Dubas went on to tell reporters that he intends to give the 18-year-old “every opportunity” to make the team in next year’s training camp. “We’ll put the ball into his court and see what he can do in the fall – we hope.”
So where exactly would Robertson fit in the Maple Leafs’ lineup if he were to make the team? Given his very young age (he’ll only turn 19 in September) and inexperience at the professional level, it would probably make the most sense to ease him into NHL action, much like Toronto has done with young defencemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. Look for him to start on the third line with skilled running mates like Pierre Engvall, Alexander Kerfoot, or Kasperi Kapanen. It may even make sense to give him some time on the second power play unit where he can utilize his powerful shot with more time and space.
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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Robertson has all the talent as well as the mental makeup to be a fan favourite in Toronto. And he may just do it as soon as next season.