Maple Leafs’ Nick Robertson: His Progress, Problems & Potential

If you’re not a Toronto Maple Leafs fan but you’ve heard the name Nick Robertson emerge in a postseason hockey conversations, here’s the backstory.

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The Maple Leafs drafted Robertson in the second round (53rd overall) of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. He was the youngest player in the draft because of his Sept. 11 birthday (four days before the draft cut-off date of Sept. 15). He put on a show with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes this season scoring 86 points (including 55 goals) in 46 games. He was dominant and was the only player in the OHL to average over a goal per game.

Nicholas Robertson Toronto Maple Leafs Draft
Nicholas Robertson, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Robertson also played for Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championships and, to no surprise, he also averaged a point-per-game pace. In addition to his stellar play and as a young player with character, he was awarded the William Hanley Memorial Trophy as the OHL’s most sportsmanlike player.

In fact, Robertson displayed so much talent and maturity as an 18-year-old that he earned a callup to the Maple Leafs’ return-to-play training camp. Although most pundits believed he was along for the experience and preparing for the future, he played well and – at least so far – earned a spot among the top-nine forwards in the starting lineup.

Robertson’s First NHL Experience is Behind Him

Robertson played his first NHL game on Tuesday night. Although it was an exhibition game, he played a regular shift throughout. The Maple Leafs beat their original-six rival the Montreal Canadiens 4-2, and Robertson even found the score sheet, recording an assist on Alex Kerfoot’s second goal of the game.

Overall, he looked good on the third line and played about 10 minutes. Because his linemates Kasperi Kapanen and Kerfoot were deployed in regular penalty-killing roles, that limited his ice time – not a bad thing for his first taste of the NHL. Overall, the third line looked dangerous in limited time during the game.

Alexander Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alexander Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

From my perspective, Robertson was into the game physically from the beginning but looked better as the game progressed. He made mistakes, and at times lost the puck to bigger and more experienced Canadiens players. No surprise, there’s a learning curve for the diminutive 18-year-old and some things still need to be figured out and improved.

Where Does Robertson Line Up Right Now?

If nothing changes during the next couple of days of practice, Robertson will probably continue to play on the third line. He earned more minutes than both Pierre Engvall and Frederik Gauthier combined during the game, and that might be telling – or it might not. Both Engvall and Gauthier are quality players and head coach Sheldon Keefe knows what he will get from them.

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During Wednesday’s practice, Robertson remained in the same spot on the third line. Because the first real game of the postseason is fast approaching, it seems he will likely start Game 1 of the qualifying round against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday, Aug. 2.

Robertson and Keefe on Robertson’s Play

In a transcript of a recent interview, Keefe was asked about Robertson’s comment after the game that he, Felt like last night proved to himself that he can keep up at this level.” Keefe responded: “I think he (Robertson) is in a good place there. He is not a guy that is short on confidence. He has shown that all the way throughout the camp that he believes in himself. He goes out every shift and tries to make the most of it in every rep in practice. That is what you like about him.”

Sheldon Keefe; John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to captain John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

About his play during the exhibition game, Keefe noted that Robertson showed “some really good, positive signs in his play. That was another level of competition than what we were going through in camp now that you are playing against a real opponent. He showed well in that sense. That was a positive thing to see from him.”

The Problems in Robertson’s Game

Despite the many positives form his first exhibition game, there are questions about whether Robertson is ready for postseason prime-time. Yesterday, Sportsnet’s Justin Bourne noted that he faced trouble along the boards when he engaged physically with bigger and more experienced opponents.

Bourne also pointed out some of the difficulties smaller, younger players must overcome to find NHL success. Specifically, he noted that smaller NHL as stars like Mitch Marner and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane succeed because they don’t check and that “they can’t even be touched.” However, because Robertson seeks to engage physically, he needs to improve that aspect of his game.

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Bourne’s critique has less to do Robertson’s eventual NHL success and is more a question about how he might hold up against the Blue Jackets’ physical defense. He noted that Roberson is an 18-year-old tenacious and hard-working player. He’s got a heavy shot and he’s hungry.

But he also points out that he’s 5-foot-9 and inexperienced. Furthermore, he faces a similar problem that any young talent faces in the NHL. There’s a huge learning curve that can get beaten into you, which is especially true during the playoffs. Because Robertson’s an engager and – unlike Marner and Kane – doesn’t “exist in the seams,” even when he engages ferociously, sometimes raw size still wins.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Bourne believes Robertson will grow into a good NHL player “one day,” but it might not be this postseason. Instead, he reminds Maple Leafs fans that “hockey is still very much a contact sport, and playoff hockey is another animal yet. There’s grabbing and pulling and huge people playing at their competitive best.”

Bourne’s assessment is that during the playoffs Robertson needs to sit. He believes Engvall and Gauthier will give the Maple Leafs a better chance of moving forward. He notes, “Engvall is huge and skates like the wind. Gauthier wins draws and defends as a priority.”

Keefe Has the Last Line Change

All this being said, Keefe has the last line change. He’s had four months of a COVID-19-induced “offseason,” and he’s video-binged his team and has made some decisions about the way he wants them to play. After a successful Phase 3 training camp, it looks like Robertson is part of his plan heading into the best-of-five series. So far.

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When asked in yesterday’s interview if he had made any decisions in terms of what he would do with Robertson during Sunday’s Game 1, Keefe replied:

What you can read into it is that we continue to believe in him. He hasn’t had any lapses here that have made us second-guess giving him that opportunity. Despite the fact that we don’t have any more games here, we haven’t made any final decisions. I still have some days here to consider some different things.”

Nick Robertson Peterborough Petes
Nick Robertson, Peterborough Petes (Luke Durda/OHL Images)

It’s an interesting situation for Keefe and the Maple Leafs regarding the team’s youngest player and future star. Whatever choice is made will be the target of continuous scrutiny and debate. Will Robertson improve as he did in his small taste of NHL action, or will he be overwhelmed by the Blue Jackets’ size and experience?

The upside is that Keefe has the last decision. He’s the coach and he has the last line change.