Maple Leafs’ Nick Robertson at Risk of Losing NHL Roster Spot

Imagine being the most talked about prospect in one of the biggest hockey cities in the world and then falling so far down the depth chart that you’re watching from the press box. Nick Robertson was the top prospect in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ system before the COVID-19 play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2020. He even scored his first NHL goal in that series, and the future looked bright for him.

Fast forward to 2022, and Robertson has battled a handful of injuries that have forced him to miss a lot of time, and he now finds himself sitting in the press box, watching his brother Jason Robertson get a point in nearly every game for the Dallas Stars. The rollercoaster ride that has been his career so far is disappointing, and now it is time for the Maple Leafs to act so that he doesn’t become a “wasted” prospect. 

The Pontus Holmberg Effect

It’s unfortunate for Robertson but amazing for the organization and their fans to see the Maple Leafs’ sixth-round pick, Pontus Holmberg, adapt to the NHL game and become a mainstay in the lineup. Not only is it good for this season, but next season, he can slot into the third-line center spot and save general manager Kyle Dubas some cap space. However, for Robertson, when he gets into the lineup, he can’t do enough to stay there.

Related: 3 Reasons Nick Robertson Must Make the Maple Leafs Roster

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The Holmberg effect has made things even harder as he is a natural center who has pushed Pierre Engvall and Alex Kerfoot over to wings, taking the spot where Robertson could slot in. 

Although it seems that his chances of getting an extended opportunity in the lineup are slim, there will always be injuries, especially to the bottom six, which will almost guarantee he gets a chance. The length of that chance is up to him. He has gone on record to say, “It is what it is. I try to be positive, whether it’s in my favour or not. Anything can change in this industry…” Head coach Sheldon Keefe also said that “he’s working his ass off and staying ready,” By all indications, when he is given another chance he will work hard to keep that spot in the lineup.

When that opportunity comes, he needs to find ways to be effective, even if he isn’t scoring goals. He will need to move his feet and get into the dirty areas and help his linemates. From that, he will find the back of the net and will earn a spot, similar to what Holmberg has done this season.

Toronto Marlies

Holmberg’s emergence has complicated matters for Robertson. However, he could have an elevated role with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League (AHL), a role that could include being part of the top-six forward group, as well as on the top power-play unit. Based on what the Maple Leafs want him to improve upon, he could also see time on the penalty kill. He needs to work on his two-way game rather than being more of a one-dimensional player. 

Nick Robertson Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Robertson, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If management wants Robertson to work on different areas of his game, and he can’t learn on the fly with the big club, then the best option for him is to find his confidence and develop at the minor-league level. Many times players have been sent down to the AHL and come back much-improved players. With that being said, it seems that this strategy has been ineffective for Robertson, which leaves the team in a tough predicament. They need to figure out how to help him stop reverting to bad habits when he joins the big club.

Additional Road Blocks for Robertson

Holmberg and Denis Malgin have both moved up and played regularly with the Maple Leafs this season, and if Robertson can’t find the confidence and consistency that the coaching staff is asking for, he could fall further down the depth chart. The one name that should be on his mind is fellow prospect Matthew Knies, who can put the team in a position to move on from Robertson rather than put in the time to continue his development.

Matthew Knies University of Minnesota
Matthew Knies, University of Minnesota (Image courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics)

When Knies is ready to join the team after his college season concludes, he will likely become a regular contributor in the lineup. That will mean fewer roster spots heading into the playoffs, and if Robertson fails to earn a spot before Knies arrives, he’s at risk of being considered a “bust” and/or traded to another team to start from scratch.

Related: Why Nick Robertson Has Won Over Maple Leafs Fans

Every team wants to have young effective players who can produce on both sides of the puck, and some players need more “seasoning” in the AHL before making that jump to the NHL. But, for Robertson, time is running out, and he needs to play somewhere to continue that development. Ultimately, Robertson and the Maple Leafs want the same thing; for him to play and produce in the NHL, as well as be consistent on both sides of the puck.

For any young player, there will be challenges along the way. However, once he overcomes them and figures out the system and his role within it, Robertson will be a very good NHL player. He just needs time to play and learn. This is why it would be wise for the Maple Leafs to let Robertson play.

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