As I’ve noted in several recent posts, Toronto Maple Leafs fans seem to be really enthusiastic about the 2020-21 season. That enthusiasm has sprung from offseason roster changes the organization made during October and the resulting team’s lineup. I know that I’m excited to see how this team plays.
Signing T.J. Brodie seems to address one crucial aspect of the defense that has been problematic for seasons. The salary cap nightmares have been eased and, at the same time, the team added the grit in Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian that will make the Maple Leafs hard to play against.
In fact, a case can even be made that the Maple Leafs might be the deepest team currently in the NHL. The lineup has either recently successful veterans or highly skilled players at almost every position.
One Thing the Maple Leafs Might Not Have with this Team
However, what the team might not have is a space for the development of the young players who one day must become the stars and leaders of this team. I’m thinking of two young players specifically right now: one is Rasmus Sandin and the other is Nick Robertson. In this post, I want to talk about Robertson because he’s on a bit of a different trajectory than Sandin. And Robertson’s case takes a bit more consideration.
Specifically, I believe and hope Robertson gets a chance to play regularly. I’ve always liked him and not even so much because he’s a skillful player – although he is. What attracts me to his story is that he’s representative of a young player who possesses incredible skill and potential that requires an organization to consider him differently. He’s special, and that’s an issue to consider.
How to grow and develop a player like Robertson, while at the same time forwarding the agenda of the team could be a puzzle. He’s too good for the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and can’t play in the AHL because of current age restrictions. Furthermore, thoughtful fans would suggest that playing him at the NHL level might not be the best solution either.
So, what do you do if you’re Kyle Dubas or head coach Sheldon Keefe? It’s a good dilemma, but a dilemma nonetheless.
What Possibilities Exist for Robertson?
Given all the possibilities and the issues that surround them, I believe Robertson should get a chance to play regularly in the Maple Leafs lineup. And, I worry that he won’t because of the team’s depth and a focus on the window of opportunity to win now that’s arrived since the organization has signed a group of players like Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Bogosian, and Simmonds to one-year contracts.
Robertson can’t move fluidly up and down the regular organizational structures – he can’t play a game or two with the Maple Leafs and then head to the Toronto Marlies for some ice time and work. That’s impossible. However, he’s a skillful player who needs development to become a really integral part of the Maple Leafs lineup now and into the future.
So, here’s where it stands with Robertson. He’s far too good for the OHL, which he proved with his goal-scoring performance last season. And, he’s unable to play in the AHL because of the age limitations. In addition, like them or not (and I for one don’t fault any governmental office using its best current wisdom to make policy decisions to protect citizens), recent Ontario’s ministry of health rulings about hockey engagements likely mediate against any kind of a typical OHL season.
What Makes Robertson a Special Player?
I’m trusting and hoping that, if there is a 2020-21 season, the Maple Leafs have a plan to insert Robertson into the lineup in both functional and developmental ways. I can’t imagine it isn’t a topic of organizational conversation. In fact, as I study the lineup, I believe there are good possibilities for creating a space where Robertson not only can function and develop, but could also become part of a hugely successful team. In fact, I believe it’s possible to create a way he can add to that success.
The first thought that comes to mind is that he’s a young man with three gifts. Gift one is that he’s fearless. He isn’t afraid of failing. As a result, he shoots the puck over and over again even if most of his shots don’t go in. Gift two is that he actually can shoot accurately; that is, many of his shots actually do find the back of the net. Gift three is that he’s so darn determined. Once he sets his mind to something, he just doesn’t seem to quit.
One of my favorite stories about Robertson came from when he was a kid living in the Detroit area. He found out that then Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock lived nearby (in Northville, Michigan) and decided he wanted to trick-or-treat at Babcock’s house.
Robertson tells that he dressed up in his Pavel Datsyuk sweater and then proceeded to knock on hundreds of doors. “I was running, knocking on everyone’s door. I’m like, ‘Are you Babcock?’ Then I’d run, knock on the next one: ‘Are you Babcock?’ Then, finally, I got him. I think I asked him about Datsyuk — that was my favourite player at the time.”
That’s Robertson’s nature. He’s a young player with a sense of purpose and so far we’ve seen success hasn’t derailed that. On May 19, The Athletic interviewed him and suggested that he was “obsessed with everything hockey.” He’s confident and wants to play for the Maple Leafs – now! (from “‘I’m ready right now’: Nick Robertson on why he can help the Maple Leafs today,” The Athletic, 19/05/20)
Robertson’s skill and his lack of fear, whether trick or treating at Babcock’s house or firing pucks on net, are gifts. But there might be a fourth gift – this time for Robertson – on the Maple Leafs roster. That gift is Thornton. During the offseason, Dubas signed perhaps the best pure passer still playing in the NHL (since Adam Oates retired in 2004) when he convinced Thornton to join the team.
How Might Robertson Become Part of the Maple Leafs Lineup?
The combination of Robertson and Thornton creates a huge possibility to take advantage of both those players’ different skills in a perfect teamwork situation. Robertson is potentially a great scorer; Thornton is a great passer. It seems like a no brainer to me.
I believe a third line made up of Thornton, Robertson, and perhaps the strong two-way play of Alex Kerfoot could be a highly successful line combination. I can see regular ice time that’s extended to real-game lessons between shifts with some personal coaching/mentoring by Thornton himself.
We’ve seen the propensity of Spezza to spend time with Robertson; and, from what I’ve read from teammate Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks, Thornton is every bit as gracious – in both giving his time and his supportive attitude – as Spezza. We call that an “intangible,” but it’s likely to produce really tangible results.
In short, in the best interests of Robertson’s development and the success of the team, I believe Robertson needs regular ice time and regular “secondary-coaching.” By that I mean during the games and not just not during or after practice. There seems to be every opportunity to do that, and it should be a team goal to make that happen.
It’s the Season to Make Robertson a Regular with the Maple Leafs
From what we can see, Robertson’s up for it. He’s a hockey junkie. As well, there seems to be a great opportunity to take advantage of helping him become a protégé or apprentice to some of the greats. Imagine the long-term benefits for the Maple Leafs, say, five seasons down the road.
When an opportunity this rich presents itself, the Maple Leafs as an organization shouldn’t miss it. Here’s hoping they don’t.