It wasn’t the news that Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nick Robertson wanted to hear after a stellar preseason.
After being cut to start the season as a result of the Maple Leafs contract situation, Robertson wasn’t deterred from it as it was only a matter of time before he would earn a call up. With the injury to Matt Murray, he would eventually get another opportunity to prove his worth against his brother Jason and the Dallas Stars. Toronto Marlies general manager Ryan Hardy even believes that this could be last time he’s seen in the American Hockey League.
After a standout performance against one of the top teams in the NHL, Robertson made his mark and once again proved to the Maple Leafs organization that he has and will continue to put in the work to make the team. While it’s one game, it’s a great start for him as he continues to create his path to stay in the NHL. If he continues with this consistency, Robertson will be done with the AHL and he’ll be here to stay with the Maple Leafs.
Standout Performance in First Game
It didn’t take long for Robertson to make a significant impact in all aspects of the game in his 2022-23 season debut. While this wasn’t his first game of his young NHL career as he has had stints in the past, a lot was riding on him to standout and remain in the NHL.
Robertson was dominant in the stats department. At five-on-five when he was on the ice, Robertson posted a 60% Corsi for and a scoring chances for percentage of 63.16. Not bad in regards to his production for his first game of the season.
Robertson was a factor in all areas of the ice. His shot remains a big part of his arsenal. The power and accuracy he has in his release is what makes him a major threat when in the offensive zone. To add to that, his speed and ability to quickly carry the play and be tough to contain in transition is a big reason why he is having even more success. The confidence in his ability to take control of the puck and attack with intent is what the Maple Leafs have been looking for in a top-six winger. To have that confidence and effort is what makes a top-six forward and Robertson has shown that consistently so far.
He already showed great chemistry with William Nylander in the preseason and that carried over into his first game. As a line, Robertson, Nylander and John Tavares posted a 63.16 CF% and the best SCF% of 69.23. Even his smarts and ability to read the play is standing out. On his first goal, he made a nice play to maintain offensive zone possession. After he distributes the puck to Michael Bunting, Robertson immediately is opening himself up to receive the puck from Nylander, heading towards the net and unleash his shot from in tight.
With defense being the main area of focus for him as it has been an issue at times, Robertson showed great confidence and composure on the backcheck as he was able to utilize his speed to get into position and breakup plays effectively. No play stood out more than his vision and awareness on his game-winning goal as it was a major takeaway from that game.
In overtime, Robertson was in a high-pressure situation as he was defending a 2-on-1, but showed great composure with his defensive positioning to break up a play. As Jamie Benn was going for a toe-drag, Robertson saw his opportunity to break up and disrupt the play. While Robertson didn’t connect on his first move, he quickly recovered to still take the puck away, leading to the 3-on-1 the other way. Once again, Robertson is ready to receive the puck immediately after giving the puck to Auston Matthews as Robertson ended the game with a quick one-timer.
“It was exciting,” Robertson said according to Joshua Clipperton of The Canadian Press. “But now for me, it’s just to keep going and keep fighting and earning every day.”
Plays like that whole sequence encompasses Robertson’s newly found well-rounded game and will be a reason why he may stay in the NHL. It’s a difficult situation for a rookie forward to defend against a 2-on-1, especially in overtime. That could’ve gone south pretty quickly had he been aggressive and getting out of position like he has in the past. However, Robertson was patient and didn’t make the first move.
Robertson’s intense work ethic and competitive nature is on another level which the Maple Leafs could use a lot of. About a month ago, it was a different story as he tried to do too much in the rookie tournament and needed to find that consistency. Now, he has found that balance of still playing with energy but to also slow the game down when he needs to.
Not Good News for Malgin
In order for Robertson to have the game that he did, someone needed to be scratched for that to happen. That someone happened to be 25-year-old Denis Malgin, who earned the spot as he would require waivers over Robertson– which is why he made the opening night roster– but he did have a great camp himself.
After a strong game against the Montreal Canadiens scoring a goal, registering two shots and playing with great energy, Malgin has gone very quiet since then, not recording a point or even a shot on goal in his last three games. When you’re given the opportunity to be a top-six player, you need to show it and he hasn’t done enough to maintain that spot.
With the performance that Robertson had in his season debut, Malgin’s spot in the top-six and even on the roster could be in jeopardy. If Robertson continues to impress and once players like Timothy Liljegren and Matt Murray return from injury, a decision needs to be made on who stays on the roster.
Ultimately, Malgin may be the odd man out. Should Robertson continue to stay in the lineup and produce more than what Malgin has done, it should be an easy decision. There should be no hesitation to place Malgin on waivers after Robertson once again stepped up and played more like a top-six player than Malgin.
If the Maple Leafs end up losing Malgin to waivers, so be it as Robertson has earned his spot. There are plenty of other depth options the Maple Leafs can call-up that could even provide more of an impact over Malgin like Alex Steeves, Pontus Holmberg or Nick Abruzzese.
Even though Robertson is waiver-exempt, how can you send him down after he has shown and done everything to continue fighting and battling to maintain his spot on the roster only to keep Malgin who hasn’t been consistent? You can’t. The player who wanted it more showed it. If the Maple Leafs sent Robertson down only to keep Malgin, how would Robertson feel to once again be a casualty of the cap despite exceeding expectations. It would probably be a tense situation between player and management.
Even if you need to make another move like trading Justin Holl, moving on from Alexander Kerfoot or keeping Jake Muzzin on LTIR, you need to keep Robertson in the fold as he’s been outstanding. The extra cap is definitely going to help.
Robertson Can Only Go Up
With a strong season debut from Robertson in the books, he can only go up from here. His competitive drive, relentless energy and high-end accuracy and shooting makes him a perfect addition for the Maple Leafs top-six.
After dealing with injuries, needing to work on his defensive game and early season contractual situations, Nick Robertson has risen to the occasion in the hopes of finally securing a full-time spot in the NHL. If he can continue this kind of production and consistent play, he’ll definitely be a key factor for this team going forward.
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Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.