What Happens if the Maple Leafs’ Nick Robertson Is Really Good?

What happens if the Toronto Maple Leafs’ young prospect Nick Robertson is very good? If he is, how will that impact the organization and reshape the team’s roster?

What We Know and Don’t Know about Robertson

There’s been a lot of hype surrounding Roberston in the past few weeks. Coming off an incredible season with the CHL’s Peterborough Petes, where he showed his prolific scoring ability (55 goals and 31 assists in 46 games), the 18-year-old phenom was invited by the Maple Leafs brass to be part of its postseason roster. Two days ago, he was named the CHL’s Sportsman of the Year.

Putting this all together, what do we know for certain about Robertson? He can dominate the CHL, and his stock within the Maple Leafs organization is bullish. He’s their top prospect. Finally, we know he’s respected both as a player and a person. It’s a testament to his character that he was honoured with the CHL’s Sportsman of the Year award.

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Here’s what we don’t know yet: Can he translate his success and character to the NHL. That’s it. It’s the only thing we don’t know right now.

How Can We Find out How Good Robertson Might Be?

The only way the Maple Leafs will determine Robertson’s NHL ability is to test him against the NHL’s best, and there’s an opportunity to do that if the 2019-20 NHL season progresses as planned. That’s why I think he will play in this postseason. This may go against prevailing wisdom because most hockey commentators suggest he’s along for the ride to learn for next season (if then, because he can’t play with the Toronto Marlies).

I believe the stakes are too high. If Robertson is as good as he is touted to be, his emergence within the organization solves a number of roster problems. If I was general manager Kyle Dubas or head coach Sheldon Keefe, visions of sugarplums would be dancing in my head and I would be willing to take a small risk to find out if he is ready.

Sheldon Keefe
Sheldon Keefe (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

We know what Dubas thinks of Robertson. When he announced via conference call that Robertson would be joining the team’s roster for the postseason, he pointed out that the Robertson had “one of the best scoring seasons in the history of the OHL.” Dubas also noted the important ways Robertson scored by “pressuring up the ice on the defensive side, making steals and scoring short-handed and on the penalty kill, which is how he scored his 50th goal.”

Dubas then discussed Robertson’s drive to succeed in several areas. First, his fitness level indicates that “Nick is a person who’s as committed as any that I’ve seen certainly at that age, and … combined with his talent and ability, makes me believe that he’ll give a good run for not only just to be here but to potentially be on the roster.”

You don’t have to read between the lines to see Dubas believes his top prospect is special – “certainly at that age.” We just have to see if he’s right for now because, even if Robertson is in over his head in the postseason, that’s only “for now.” He’s young.

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Still, the 22-year-old Alex DeBrincat comes to mind as a model. Chosen in the second round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft (39th overall), the 5-foot-7, 165-pound, left-winger played well in the NHL. He’s already had three solid seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and was a wise draft choice and in how the team has employed him so far.

If Robertson Is Good, How Could He Impact the Maple Leafs Lineup?

If Robertson is good, he’s a perfect line partner for Auston Matthews. I’ve already spoken about that in a previous post where I used the Edmonton Oilers as an example to show how the Oilers’ offense improved when head coach Dave Tippett put Kailer Yamamoto (who, at 5-foot-8 and 153 pounds, is even smaller than Robertson’s 5-foot-9 and 164-pound frame) on the Leon Draisaitl line.

Kailer Yamamoto Oilers
Kailer Yamamoto, Edmonton Oilers, Oct. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Their careers suggest that size matters little for both Robertson and Yamamoto. Confidence, speed, and firepower matter more. The other member of the Draisaitl line is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who, although not a clone of William Nylander, shares similar skills. The 21-year-old Yamamoto scored 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in 27 games after being partnered with Draisaitl at the end of the 2019 calendar year.

If Robertson’s good enough to play in the top six, that means he’s valuable to the Maple Leafs as both a good player and an inexpensive good player.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Marlies, Dubas, Lehtonen & Black Aces

He also benefits the Maple Leafs by creating room for young Russian Ilya Mikheyev. He will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season, but I believe the Maple Leafs are interested in keeping him around. In a season limited by a horrifying accidental skate-blade laceration suffered in New Jersey, Mikheyev played well. Should Dubas sign him to a short-term, bridge deal, he offers steady and good value to the team.

(Also, If I was Dubas or Mikheyev, I would opt for a one-year contract. Given the impact of COVID-19 on the salary cap, it might be wise to bide one’s time to see where the 2021-22 salary cap settles. Revenue should soar next season, and in that case, patience is an economic virtue.)

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I expect Mikheyev to become a larger part of the team’s roster. He scored eight goals and 23 points in 39 games. His 2.44 points per 60 minutes of ice time led the Maple Leafs.

Specific Line Changes If Robertson Can Play in the Top Six

Should Robertson prove to be good now, I suggest the following line combinations might work well:

Robertson (left wing) – Matthews (center) – Nylander (right wing)

Zach Hyman (left wing)  – John Tavares (center) – Mitch Marner (right wing)

Pierre Engvall (left wing) – Alexander Kerfoot (center)  – Mikheyev (right wing)

Kyle Clifford (left wing) – Frederik Gauthier (center)  – Jason Spezza (right wing)

Note: Hyman gets to dig pucks out for both Marner and Tavares. Mikheyev is listed on the depth chart as a left winger but only played there this season with the Maple Leafs.

Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares

Notice that Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson aren’t on my roster. That’s because, if Robertson proves worthy, both players will be traded for a top-four defenseman. As much as I like Kapanen – late for practice or not – he’s the most valuable trade chip. On several teams, he’d have a chance to be the star. Also, he’s on a team-friendly contract.

No other Maple Leafs player could make that trade happen and, if packaged with Andreas Johnsson, the trade would have immediate star quality. There are teams who’d make that trade. Finally, the $6.6 million cap hit from Kapanen and Johnsson’s contracts should bring back a good defenseman.

The Opportunities That Exist If Robertson Is Really Good Player

For all this to work, Robertson must be good enough to make the top six. As well, Mikheyev would also need to sign with the team. However, the only way to know if Robertson is the real deal is to see how he performs under NHL pressure, and that chance might be coming soon. Given the possibilities that exist “if” he proves to be a great young player, would I play him in the postseason?

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In a heartbeat. The gamble is so minor that it only makes sense to go for it. When you have that much potential available, you have to see. That an organization would make Robertson rise through the ranks is old-school thinking; and Dubas and Keefe are far from old school.