Nick Robertson
NHLToronto Maple Leafs

Expectations for Nick Robertson’s Potential NHL Debut

Nick Robertson is a rare example of a player who really didn’t need to do anything in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform to win his way into our hearts.

If you aren’t familiar with Nick Robertson, he’s an 18-year-old, 5-foot-9 winger that general manager Kyle Dubas somehow stole in the second round of the draft last year. His junior highlight reel speaks for itself. While highlight reels don’t tell the whole story, he is, by all accounts, an incredible junior hockey player. Are you sold yet?

For many Leaf fans, Robertson’s highlights are all they know. Let’s be honest; not all of us have the time or opportunity to evaluate OHL game-tape, and it makes me thankful for the guys who do so we can have a better understanding of these guys before the step into an NHL lineup.

“He is a goalscoring machine,” says scout Samuel Tirpak of DobberProspects. “Great skater, great puck handler.”

In terms of his offensive ability, hockey sense seems to be a strength. It’s not just that he can score goals with his shot, but that he can get to the difficult areas to create plays.

“Robertson is a top-notch playmaker,” describes Josh Tessler, Director of Scouting at Smaht Scouting. “When he has the puck in the slot, he can burn you in many different ways. He has a crisp snap shot. [He] has shown that he can pull off sleek behind the back and spin passing. From a puck handling perspective, he possesses strong hand and can swerve around traffic with ease.”

Drafted 53rd overall in 2019, Robertson had a huge season offensively for the Peterborough Petes of the OHL this year scoring 55 goals and 86 points in just 46 games. However, the best news for Maple Leafs’ fans is that Robertson is not just a goal scorer. He wants to contribute in other areas – and has the ability to do so.

“He played regularly on the penalty kill and was dangerous on it as he was able to cut opposing cycles and create offensive chances,” continued Tirpak. “His mentality is bulletproof and he is a determined young player.”

Listen, nobody likes being told to temper their expectations. It’s never what you want to hear. About anything. Of course, this is the part where I tell you to temper your immediate expectations of Nick Robertson, and then you sigh while reading this. Perhaps the weaker ones even close this article. But not you. You’re strong. Hear me out. You can do this.

When asked if Robertson would step in immediately, both scouts were cautious to guarantee an immediate impact during Return To Play.

“I think that Robertson will be rather productive in the NHL,” says Tessler. “But, at first, expectations need to be tempered.”

I won’t say that I told you so, because that’s mean.

“He is coming off of a great season with the Peterborough Petes,” continued Tessler. “…but the competition level is quite different when you compare the OHL to the NHL. At first, I would plug him in on the fourth line. Perhaps, you look to sit Gauthier, move Spezza to centre and plug Robertson at wing.”

Ultimately, I would agree with Tessler. It is important with these young guys to give them the opportunity to move up, but not the responsibility of immediate production. It cannot be understated that no matter how good Robertson appears to be, he is currently 18-years old, and will be when the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Blue Jackets on August 2nd.

“With wingers like Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev, you could debate whether or not Robertson would be more effective from a production standpoint, but you have to factor in that Mikheyev and Engvall already have their feet wet.”

There is no reason to use the immediate deployment of Robertson as a basis for what to expect in his future. This restart is very unique, which we will get into later. It does seem clear he will get his chance during Return to Play, or to start next year.

“I’m not convinced he would make the playoff roster,” added Samuel Tirpak. “It would depend on his training camp, but I’m pretty sure he is going to play a regular mid-6 role for the Leafs next season.”

Robertson is a kid who clearly seems ready to compete at an NHL level. Whether that’s for seven minutes a night, or twenty minutes a night remains to be seen.

Having said that, the reasoning I would tell people to temper their expectations really doesn’t have as much to do with Nick Robertson specifically. It’s common right now for people to forget the parameters of this restart. Some people have come to the conclusion that this is the NHL resuming from exactly where we left off. That just isn’t the case.

The start of Return To Play is likely going to look like the usual post-training camp, first 10-15 games level of hockey. While many of these players held themselves to a regular offseason-type workout during the break, this time off is going to effect players differently.

Take a player like Phil Kessel for example. When Phil Kessel played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, he went on the record to say he barely skates at all during the off-season. While Phil was a player who seemed to be just as ready to go at the start of the season as he was at the end of it, this is obviously not the case for everybody. Some players respond differently to extended time off the ice, and in some cases that’s not a good thing. While training camp is a good reminder of the chemistry these guys had months ago, a lot can change in four months between 20 (or 35) guys.

In many cases, the last time these guys had to have their bodies in peak shape for the end of July was probably when they were fifteen-years old for their AAA tryouts. Meaning, in many cases, none of their guys have ever had to do this. For older guys, this stoppage could result in their bodies catching up with them. There is always that fear in hockey that guys are going to show up after four months off and just can’t do it anymore, which could create problems for teams with veteran rosters (luckily the Toronto Maple Leafs are among the younger rosters in the Return To Play).

There is a lot of evidence (and logic) to support that “down time” for athletes is essential toward their training. Rest is essential for these guys to be able to harness their peak condition. If your car’s engine is running 24/7, something is going to overheat and break. It needs time to cool down. However, for a lot of these guys, starting that engine will be the equivalent of trying to start the car during a Northwestern Ontario winter; it might not happen that easily.

I wouldn’t bet on it, but teams with an older core such as the Bruins, Islanders, Predators, among others could falter out of the gate on the restart.

I don’t really know that many of the Leafs are going to have a difficult time on the restart. They should all have a chip on their shoulder, but that doesn’t guarantee a “bat out of hell” result. This is a team that had huge expectations entering the year, then again following the coaching change. Often, those expectations were met with underwhelming and inexplicable results.

I’d like to believe that whatever injury was clearly bothering Morgan Rielly since about game 3-5 of this season is healed. I’d like to believe that John Tavares’ thumb (or whatever) is no longer bothering him. The reality is that we don’t know until they hit the ice what we’re going to see from these guys.

That brings me back to Nick Robertson. I love what I’ve seen from him. By all accounts, scouts seem to love what they’ve seen from him. And you, the person reading this, probably love him. Having said that, these kids need to be allowed some time to figure things out.

He’s a (very) good prospect, and even if he is up to speed from the start of his first shift, there’s a chance his linemates aren’t up to speed. Just because you know what you’re supposed to be doing doesn’t mean that’s how it works out all the time. It could take Nick Robertson a few shifts to figure that out. It might also take a few games, or another offseason, or even a few years.

I’m not betting that it takes him a few years, but if it does, that’s okay.

Robertson could be slow to start if he does make the lineup just like so many other prospects in their first few NHL games. In the Return To Play Program, you could say the same thing for a lot of players on the Toronto Maple Leafs, veterans included.

Remember October and how bad Kasperi Kapanen was the first 10 games or so? Sometimes the break isn’t a good thing for these guys, and it takes some time to get back into it.

Given the circumstances, you shouldn’t blame any player in the NHL for taking a little extra time to get focussed and back to high compete level during the Return to Play Program. Nick Robertson certainly seems to have the work ethic and skill set to contribute right now, but until the puck drops it is just one of many unknowns.

Have some faith, but be willing to give the kid a break. Be willing to do the same for Sheldon Keefe if Robertson isn’t in the lineup on August 2nd against the Blue Jackets.

There really is some merit behind the phrase “temper your expectations.”

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Brutes Battaglia
Former writer for Puck77. Life long Toronto Maple Leafs fan. I also enjoy all things New England Patriots, Toronto Raptors, and Boston Red Sox. Diehard Third Eye Blind fan.

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