Maple Leafs Should Play Robertson with Matthews

In a conference call on Wednesday, May 27, Toronto Maple Leafs team president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Kyle Dubas, and team captain John Tavares updated the NHL’s Return to Play plans. During that same call, Dubas announced that the team’s 2019 second-round draft choice Nick Robertson would be part of the roster when the team returned to the ice.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Hoefenmayer, Robertson & Phase 2

Dubas also publically appreciated Robertson noting that the young prospect “had a great season in Peterborough and continued to improve in what he can offer.”

Dubas pointed out Robertson’s prolific scoring, “one of the best scoring seasons in the history of the OHL” and noted the important ways he 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.”

Kyle Dubas Toronto Maple Leafs Draft
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Dubas added that Robertson’s fitness level will have a major impact and 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.”

Although Dubas waxed on about the diminutive fireball, most hockey commentators noted that it was likely Robertson was only here to hang around the “big guys.” But, might more be in the wind? Could there be more going on with Robertson than we imagine?

A Lesson from the Edmonton Oilers

If head coach Sheldon Keefe and Dubas want an idea where to place Robertson next season in the Maple Leafs lineup – or even this season if they’re gutsy –they just need to look three provinces west at the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers made great strides this season after seasons of disappointment and there was a single main reason. Head coach Dave Tippett finally pulled the trigger and broke up the prolific partnership of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.

Related: Origins of Every NHL Team: Eastern Conference

Although Draisaitl and McDavid were a partnership made in heaven, the team was less effective when they played together in five-on-five situations than when each centered his own line. I note five-on-five because, similar to the Pittsburgh Penguins who separated the great Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in five-on-five situations but played them together on the first power-play unit, the Oilers have a potent power play for that same reason – Draisaitl and McDavid can team up there with impunity.

Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid
Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

For the Oilers’ big-two separation to work, each player had to have effective line-mates playing with them. And, that’s exactly what the Oilers found.

The McDavid line has Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at left-wing, and RNH was good in his own right. His strong playmaking skills grew from his seasons playing second-line center. Right-winger Zach Kassian is a troublesome sort, whose on-ice skills don’t necessarily match his partners but who bangs bodies all over the ice (a Nazem Kadri sort) and gets his nose dirty sticking up for teammates without much provocation needed (did I say Kadri already?).

Draisaitl is the size on his line. He’s 6-foot-2, 208 pounds and he’s a load. He’s partnering with two virtual munchkins. His left-winger Tyler Ennis is well-known to Maple Leafs fans because the 5-foot-9, 161-pound Edmonton-native played with the Maple Leafs last season and showed skill wherever he was asked to play by then-head coach Mike Babcock.

Interestingly, in Ennis’ season with the Ottawa Senators, he was the highest-scoring bang-for-the-buck in the NHL. That is, he scores more goals per contract dollar than any other NHL player – even more than Auston Matthews or Draisaitl himself.

Artem Anisimov Tyler Ennis Mark Borowiecki
Ottawa Senators right wing Tyler Ennis celebrates a goal (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

Kailer Yamamoto is even smaller at 5-foot-8 and 153 pounds. However, for him, size matters little. He’s come into his own on the Draisaitl line and offers additional speed and firepower. This past week, Yamamoto stated that the difference was that he’s confident enough to play with skilled forwards such as Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins. In fact, the 21-year-old forward scored 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in 27 games after being put on the Draisaitl line on Dec. 31.

Robertson and Yamamoto: Physical Size Doesn’t Measure Heart

Here’s where Robertson comes into play. Robertson has proven that he’s an elite goal scorer and, as Dubas noted, had one of the best seasons in OHL history scoring more than 50 goals with the Peterborough Petes. But the 18-year old, who fell to the Maple Leafs as the 53rd overall pick from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft because of concerns about his size, has shown much more.

Nicholas Robertson Toronto Maple Leafs Draft
Nicholas Robertson, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Standing just 5-foot-9, Robertson’s an inch taller than Yamamoto. He’s also every bit as driven and he doesn’t lack confidence. That drive has lifted Robertson to become the organization’s top prospect. His CHL-high 55 goals and 86 points in 46 games this season is just one aspect of his game. To cite Dubas, he pressures up the ice on defense, he steals the puck and scores short-handed, he a strong penalty killer. As a result, Robertson – whose ineligible to play with the Toronto Marlies next season, will get “every opportunity” to make the Maple Leafs roster out of training camp next season. Dubas said as much earlier this season.

Now it’s been announced that he’ll become part of the team’s Black Aces. When that was announced, I noted – like most other Maple Leafs commentators – that there’s little chance Robertson would suit up for a postseason game. Instead, he’d relish the chance to practice and hang out with other Maple Leafs players. Now, I’m not so certain.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Prospect Report: Robertson, Der-Arguchintsev Mastering Craft in OHL

And, I’m not alone. On Monday this week, Maple Leafs’ writer Terry Koshan explored Robertson’s chances of seeing the ice. “We expect that Robertson would have the best chance of any of those on the expanded roster to make an impact, though there is no guarantee that such an opportunity will come Robertson’s way (of course, that could change if the Leafs find themselves down 1-0 to the Blue Jackets and in need of a spark in a short series).”

Nick Robertson Peterborough Petes
Nick Robertson, Peterborough Petes (Luke Durda/OHL Images)

Koshan added, “We have full respect for Robertson’s determination and skill.”

He then suggested ways the 18-year-old (he turns 19 on Sept. 11) might get into the lineup for Game 1. If he does, following the pattern that’s worked so well for the Oilers this season, I suggest he play with Matthews as the first line left-winger. Here’s my thinking:

Where to Play Robertson in the Lineup

Right now, the Maple Leafs first line has Matthews at center, Zach Hyman at left wing, and William Nylander at right wing. The second line lists John Tavares at center, Kasperi Kapanen at left wing, and Mitch Marner at right wing. The third line is Alexander Kerfoot at center, Pierre Engvall at left wing, and Denis Malgin at right wing.

First, after the season Nylander had he shouldn’t be moved away from Matthews. They play too well together. Matthews is a better defensive player than people believe and not long ago team president Brendan Shanahan suggested Matthews as a Selke candidate. However, I propose replacing Hyman with Robertson on the first line. In short, that’s a formidable offensive line. And it gives the Maple Leafs a Draisaitl-like first line with Nylander and Robertson as partners.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Moving Hyman to left-wing on the second line allows him to dig out pucks for Marner, who can move them to the sharp-shooting Tavares. With the defensive strength of Hyman and two-way talent Marner possesses, that gives the Maple Leafs both a strong offensive and a strong defensive line in one unit.

That bumps Kapanen to a stacked third line for the postseason. That line would become Kerfoot at center, Kapanen at left wing, and Ilya Mikheyev at right wing. Although Mikheyev is listed as a left-winger on the Maple Leafs depth chart, until he came to the team this season he’d always played on the right side.

Does Robertson Have a Chance to Play Against the Blue Jackets?

When we hear Dubas talk about Robertson, we know he has paid attention to his organization’s players, regardless of where they’ve played. I’ve also believed Dubas is honest with players and fans. If so, Maple Leafs fans might be in for a treat. Obviously, the point is for the team to win; but, if Robertson’s as good as his 2019-20 season predicts, he might be able to help.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Robertson, Tavares & Trade Rumors

Is Robertson a long shot to make the Maple Leafs’ playoff roster? Perhaps. But this is a season of crazy, and crazy has happened before. 49 years ago in 1971, crazy happened when young goalie Ken Dryden, who had just finished his NCAA season with Cornell University, led his team to the Stanley Cup when Montreal Canadiens’ head coach Al MacNeil played a hunch.

Is there a chance the Maple Leafs might play a similar hunch with Robertson? We might see soon enough.