With the NHL announcing its plans to return with a 24-team playoff scenario somewhere between mid to late summer, so too will teams start to announce what their expanded rosters will look like for this summer league madness.
According to the rules for this playoff scenario, team involved will be allowed to expanded to 28 skaters and an unlimited supply of goaltenders for their summer playoff run. With that, guys that might not normally get a chance to play right away in the NHL are getting a look for possible call-up to make their NHL dreams a reality.
Enter the Maple Leafs and Nicholas Robertson. The highly-skilled forward made noise in the Ontario Hockey League last season and with the official announcement of the NHL’s Return to Play scenarios, the Maple Leafs announced that Robertson would be part of their expanded roster when they get set to take on the Columbus Blue Jackets in a best-of-five series.
With that, Peter Baracchini and I decided to discuss whether or not this will be a sign of what’s to come for the young prospect moving forward, or if it’s merely a try-out with a place on the 2020-21 Maple Leafs still a dream in the works.
Baracchini: Current Roster Poses Threat to Robertson’s Chances
All the talk right now seems to be surrounding Maple Leafs’ top prospect Nick Robertson, and rightfully so. The Peterborough Petes’ sharpshooter tore up the Ontario Hockey League in scoring, registering 55 goals in 46 games as an 18-year-old. In addition, he’s coming off being named the OHL’s most sportsmanlike player.
Let’s face it, Robertson has shown that he is ready to take the next step in his development, setting his sights on a 2020-21 roster spot.
Recently, Robertson said that he is focused and he’s unequivocally ready to wear the blue and white.
“If I didn’t have (a) tenaciousness in my game, I wouldn’t say I’m ready right now,” Robertson said in an interview with The Athletic. This determination is what makes Robertson special. He’s even taken to Twitter to show that he’s ready for when that time comes.
There’s no doubt that Robertson should be on the roster. However, the Maple Leafs already have number of left wingers. It’s not about Robertson’s skill and compete level, he has amazing depth at both the NHL level and in the American Hockey League. However, this could be the reason that Robertson may not make it. Like it always is in training camp, players can easily push others aside and earn a roster spot. That’s the whole point of this process; it’s every player for themselves.
If Robertson doesn’t make the team, what happens next? The OHL might be out of the question after he dominated against his opponents. Among OHL players one year after their draft year, Robertson is first in even strength goals (34) and in total primary points per game with 1.59, ahead of players like Connor McMichael and Arthur Kaliyev and playing in fewer games. Going back for a second season after hi draft year would be too easy for him.
We could see him suit up for the Toronto Marlies and ease him in to the pro level. Even then, that may not be enough of a challenge for him. He is already playing like a pro player with his mentality.
In order for him to be truly given a chance, roster changes might be on the way. Andreas Johnsson, Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen are always at the forefront of trade talk. Robertson could impress at camp, forcing management to make a move. They could easily be moved for assistance on defence, potentially freeing up a spot for Robertson to excel and thrive knowing his impact as a player. He’s able to do what all three can do and more.
Maple Leafs’ general manager, Kyle Dubas, has already spoken highly of Robertson getting a fair chance at camp. He already has a pro mindset, which we saw last season. Until the logjam at the wing is solved, Robertson’s future on the Maple Leafs is up in the air. He deserves a spot, 100 percent. However, some major roster decisions need to be made before hand in order for his future to be certain.
Forbes: Robertson Holds the Cards to Roster Spot
Consider this, with the announcement made that the NHL season is done and they are headed straight into a 24-team playoff, the Maple Leafs will quickly be looking at where their salary issues lie and what holes they are left with moving forward.
Players who have contracts expiring following the culmination of the 2019-2020 season are Kyle Clifford, Jason Spezza, Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie, who all become unrestricted free agents. While Denis Malgin, Frederik Gauthier, Travis Dermott and Ilya Mikheyev are all set to become restricted free agents for the Maple Leafs.
That doesn’t even include Nathan Horton and David Clarkson, technically, coming off the books as their contracts were on the team’s long-term injury reserve this past season, as well as Robin Lehner who the Maple Leafs retained part of his salary prior to trading him during the year.
Now, let’s assume the Maple Leafs don’t bring back Ceci or Barrie. Heck, let’s even wave goodbye to Spezza and Malgin for arguments sake, there are open spots on the roster up for grabs come 2020-21. However, the competition is deep.
Guys like, Yegor Korshkov, Nic Petan and Adam Brooks have had a taste of the NHL and likely want to be back with the big club. Jeremy Bracco and Alexander Barabanov will certainly be looking to make their mark and crack the roster as well. So, where in that does a spot open up for Robertson?
That’s the beauty of training camp. It gives each and every player the opportunity to earn their spot amongst the big-league pros. The recognition of what Robertson can do will be there among coaching staff and upper management. Heck, they’ve seen him master the OHL and to send him back simply wouldn’t be beneficial to his overall development.
For me, it’s the NHL or AHL for Robertson. The opportunity will be there for him to make the club and as of now, he remains one of the top, if not the top prospect in the organization.
While you obviously don’t want to see him start his career in a fourth-line role with limited minutes, there could be an argument to be had that getting him into the lineup and giving him minutes with the second powerplay unit could be beneficial to the kid.
With size no longer a defining attribute in the NHL, Robertson has nothing but room to blossom into a legitimate NHL calibre player. The potential to be a top six forward in the league is there and his tenaciousness and will to better his overall game could make him a dangerous player for the Maple Leafs.
That on top of the fact that the Maple Leafs could potentially use some of their forward depth to acquire another defenceman – which remains another need for the team – it could come down to Robertson and a few others to fill that void in the lineup. And don’t think for a second that native of Arcadia, California, won’t be looking to leave his mark on the team both in training camp and as a mainstay within their lineup when the 2020-21 season gets underway.
In the end, Robertson holds all the cards in his hands, especially with the opportunity that will be presented to him with the 2019-20 expanded rosters. The potential is there. The roster spot will be there. He’s just going to have to find a way to show that he’s one step ahead – and more ready – than the Maple Leafs other prospects.
Will Robertson compete for a roster spot with the Maple Leafs next season? Let us know what you think in the comment section.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.