Some fans grumbled after seeing the results of the weekend’s NHL Entry Draft, when Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas didn’t draft a single player over 5-foot-11. The team lacks size and physicality, they say, and surely another undersized winger won’t solve their problems. But what 5-foot-9 Nick Robertson lacks in size, he more than makes up for in skill and tenacity.
“He’s probably the hardest working player – maybe in the draft,” Rob Wilson, Robertson’s coach with the Peterborough Petes, said to The Athletic’s Jonas Siegel. “When we have a day off, he’ll call and ask myself or the GM, ‘Is there any extra ice?’ He literally wants game tape of himself daily” (from ‘Belligerence. Pugnacity. Truculence? Nope. Meet Nick Robertson, the new model for future Maple Leafs,’ The Athletic – 6/25/19). That hard work continues off the ice, too. Robertson is working with former Maple Leaf, now famed trainer, Gary Roberts at his high performance centre.
Despite being considered an offensive talent with 27 goals and 55 points in 54 games this season, Robertson is focused on rounding out his 200-foot game. Thinking offence-first is a common theme among prospects, and one that Maple Leafs fans have seen in their own players. Nazem Kadri, for instance, was an offence-first player until the 2015-16 season, when he was first relied upon as more of a shutdown or matchup centreman. That’s clearly not an issue for Robertson. The 17-year-old winger constantly asked Wilson about positioning in his own zone and on the defensive side of the puck and according to the coach, that attention to detail and relentless drive to improve is what separates him from other players.
John Lilley, the Maple Leafs’ director of amateur scouting, also spoke to the characteristics that make Robertson stand out from the pack – and make him likely to become an instant fan favourite in Toronto:
“He’s driven, and that’s part of what we like about him is, aside from the skill and the hockey sense, this kid lives, breathes and eats hockey,” Lilley told The Athletic. “I can’t give you a first line or second line, but we certainly have high hopes that he’s going to be an offensive player at the National Hockey League level in time.”
Robertson Has Top-Six Potential
Building off Lilley’s comments, Robertson could one day fill a top-six role in the NHL. Among 17 year olds in the Ontario Hockey League, Robertson finished 9th in points and 8th in goals this season. He accomplished that while leading his team in scoring, so he clearly didn’t get much help. When you watch him in action, you can see that he is oozing with skill:
His combination of agility, puck control, and awareness is on display here, and combined with his commitment to improving, it’s incredible that he slipped down to the Maple Leafs at no. 53. In fact, he projected to be a first-rounder: Central Scouting had him 17th among North American skaters while consensus rankings, based on 14 sources, put him 28th. Why Robertson fell so far is anyone’s guess, but the Maple Leafs will be ecstatic to pick up a genuine first-round talent in the late second round.
Another fact to consider, is that he’s very young: Robertson was born on Sep. 11, just three days before the cut-off date for this year’s draft. He is several months younger than most members of his draft-year cohorts, which makes his current stage of development all the more impressive.
To make things more interesting, he has a brother, Jason, who also plays in the OHL. He was a second-round draft pick of the Dallas Stars in 2017, and this season, put up 117 points in 62 games. More importantly for Maple Leafs fans, Jason is much bigger than his brother at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. Factoring in Nick’s age, there is still a chance that he could hit a late growth spurt and end up close to his brother’s size. His height clearly hasn’t held him back up to this point, but no one would complain about another couple of inches.
Coaches and scouts have already thrown around a couple of intriguing comparables for Robertson. The most prominent name out there is Montreal Canadiens winger, Brendan Gallagher.
Like Robertson, Gallagher is a smallish winger at 5-foot-9, but his lack of size doesn’t deter him from getting to the net. Both players are known for their endless energy and penchant for putting up points. They had similar draft years as well: Gallagher scored 41 goals and 81 points in 72 games for the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, and somehow fell to the fifth round. That was in 2010, when the league’s bias in favour of size was significantly stronger than it is now. Gallagher has since proven his doubters wrong, tallying over 30 goals and 50 points the last two seasons. It’s too early to tell if the Maple Leafs’ second-round pick could replicate those numbers, but it’s not a bad thing to be held in that regard.
Robertson himself thinks his game resembles that of current Maple Leaf Trevor Moore. Both players are California-natives who pride themselves on their pesky play, although Robertson projects to have a better scoring touch at the NHL level. Despite appearing in just 25 regular season games, Moore has already become a fan favourite in Toronto.
He’s got a long way to go, but don’t be surprised if Robertson makes the same impression on Leafs Nation a few years down the line.
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.