Maple Leafs Must Set Nick Robertson Up For Success in 2022-23

It’s officially been two weeks since the start of free agency, and while the acquisition of Matt Murray and the signings of Ilya Samsonov and Calle Jarnkrok among others have taken most of the spotlight, the Toronto Maple Leafs appear to have a hole in their top six. While it’s safe to expect the line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Michael Bunting to reunite, there’s a bit of a question mark on the second line. John Tavares and William Nylander will almost certainly make up two-thirds of it, but that last spot on the left side could be up for grabs. 

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The Maple Leafs have Alex Kerfoot, who spent some time there in 2021-22 and tallied 51 points in 82 games, but with the team walking on thin ice salary cap-wise, his name has been floated as a possible trade candidate. His production on paper last season was impressive, but oftentimes it appeared that line lacked chemistry, and the Maple Leafs could be looking for somebody a little more dynamic to round out that top six. And if they don’t sign or trade for anybody, there’s a young fella named Nick Robertson waiting for a shot. 

Nick Robertson Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Robertson, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Robertson is an interesting case. He was a second-round pick in 2019 and wound up getting his first NHL opportunity in the 2020 Playoff bubble, only a year after he was drafted. Since then, he’s battled injuries, had some short stints with the Maple Leafs and seemingly proven that he’s ready for the big leagues. But if the team is going to give him a shot in the NHL, they need to make it count, otherwise, they’re better off trading him.

Maple Leafs’ Robertson Developed Quicker Than Others 

When a team drafts a 5-foot-10, 176-pound winger from the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) in the second round, there’s usually a general belief that the player is more of a project and won’t be ready for the NHL for a while. But that hasn’t been the case with Robertson. In fact, the younger brother of Dallas Stars forward Jason Robertson decided he didn’t want to waste any time showing Maple Leafs’ brass what he was all about. He had 55 points in 54 games in his draft year, which are admirable numbers considering where they got him (53rd overall). Then, the following season he decided to turn his game from “admirable” to “incredible”.

In 2019-20, Robertson absolutely exploded offensively, scoring at over a goal-per-game rate and leading the league in goals, lighting the lamp 55 times to go along with 86 points in 46 games. His efforts earned him Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Sportsman of the Year honours, as well as a nomination for the OHL First All-Star Team as well as the OHL’s Most Sportsmanlike Player. His season, like everybody’s in 2019-20, was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which robbed him of a playoff run.

On the other hand, though, the pause may have benefitted Robertson more than anything else. The Maple Leafs added him to their roster in the bubble and he ended up scoring his first goal (though, technically not his first NHL goal since it came in the playoffs). Then, with the OHL not having a season in 2020-21, he was able to take advantage of an exemption from the CHL-AHL agreement and play for the Toronto Marlies despite being under 20 years old. He recorded 16 points in 21 games, and upped his production in 2021-22, scoring 16 goals and tallying 28 points in 26 games along the way.

Maple Leafs Can’t Deploy Robertson the Same Way in 2022-23 

Robertson’s final statline in the NHL last season saw him finish with one goal in 10 games. Of course, if you look at his stats out of context, he looks like a player that clearly needs more time to develop in the American Hockey League (AHL). But the reality is, that the California native was being used in a way that was likely detrimental to his skill set, and he barely had the ice time to show for it. If the Maple Leafs plan to use him as a regular or even semi-regular player in 2022-23, they can’t use him the same way they did last season. 

Robertson’s average time-on-ice (aTOI) through his ten-game NHL stint in 2021-22 was 10:16. He never played more than 13 minutes in a game, and in some, he didn’t play more than six or seven minutes. He also never got any power play time, and while he started a couple of games alongside Nylander and Tavares, he seldom finished them there, which his ice-time game-by-game has proven. His minutes are equal to those of a bottom-six forward, and the Maple Leafs need to have a little more faith in him if they want to set him up for success and get the most value out of him.

Robertson’s goal totals over his career do all the talking for him, as he’s scored at the rate of a true goal scorer at every level he’s played at so far, and if the Maple Leafs want him to follow that same path at the NHL level, they have to give him every opportunity to do so. He should be getting top nine minutes as well as a spot at the hash marks on the second power play unit. His shot is what got him drafted to the NHL, and he’s not going to impress anybody buried in a bottom-six role with limited opportunities to contribute. 

If You’re Not Gonna Play Robertson, Trade Him 

The reality is, that Robertson’s fast-tracked development has him in a little bit of a pickle with the Maple Leafs. He obviously hasn’t proven enough at the NHL level to guarantee him a spot out of training camp, but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine there’s much more for him to gain in the minors. I think the best way for the Maple Leafs to approach this would be for them to start him in their top nine (assuming he has a good training camp), give him an actual opportunity to succeed, and if others outplay him and it becomes apparent that they don’t have space for him, trade him. 

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Trading Robertson is not something I want the Maple Leafs to do, and I doubt they want to do it either. But at this point, you’d have to imagine he’s ready for a full-time gig in the show, and now the ball is in his court (or rather, the puck is at his end of the ice) to show the team what he can do. The team is looking to compete this season, and while he could certainly be an effective piece for them and contribute, they also shouldn’t wait around if he can’t hold down a job this season.

Robertson is young enough that there’s still lots of value there, and he could certainly be an appealing trade chip for a team looking to sell at the trade deadline. But, if all goes according to plan, he won’t be traded, and instead, we’ll be talking about his breakout season when the deadline comes around.