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2019 Leafs Prospect Rankings – The Maybes: Nick Robertson

Nicholas Robertson

Position: C/LW

Physical: 5’9″, 161 pounds

Age: 17

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2018 TLN Prospect Ranking: N/A

Draft Information: 2nd round, 53rd overall in 2019

‘Tis the first week of September, which means we are down to the top four prospects. Next up is who is I believe to be the Leafs’ best forward prospect, Nicholas Robertson.

So, let’s dive into what makes the little guy tick.

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Why is He in this Tier?

The Leafs drafted Robertson 53rd overall in the 2019 Draft, for which he was barely old enough to qualify (he was 4 days from 2020-eligibility), and therefore, made him one of the youngest players drafted.

Many scouts had Robertson ranked well above the 53rd spot — Button (28), Wheeler (30), Pronman (25) — with all having him pegged as a first-round talent. We’ll get into why he wasn’t drafted there in a moment, but he clearly has the respect of scouts, and the Leafs had to be pleasantly surprised that he was there at 53.

On the surface, Robertson looks like really good value for the Leafs at 53.

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Full transparency, if Robertson was a few inches taller and didn’t have the body of a 15 year old, he absolutely doesn’t fall to the second round, and is likely a lock to be a top 6 NHL forward. The reality is Robertson’s older brother, Jason, is 6’2″, so there’s a non-zero chance that Nicholas hits a late growth spurt and ends up around 6 feet. If teams KNEW he’d grow to 6 ft, he’s a first-round pick without a second thought.

So, there’s the first “Maybe.”

Robertson is small, but with that room to grow, he has all the skills to be a successful player in the NHL. While we don’t know how Robertson is going to develop, we do know where the game is trending (hint: toward smaller, skilled players), and that makes Robertson a BIG maybe since he could produce some high entertainment value if his game translates to the NHL. If I were a betting woman, I’d bet on Robertson being an impactful middle-six forward, as he’s got attributes to his game that I believe will translate to the modern NHL.

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So, what do his coach and others who play against him think? Well, I don’t believe in “compete” as an attribute (like shooting, skating, skill), but his coach and many others have said there’s not a more consistently competitive player in the OHL.

Robertson may not always be producing offensively — most young players struggle with consistency — but his effort level from the first shift to the last is consistent and at the maximum. On the numerous occasions I watched Petes games last season (they weren’t very good), I always found myself noticing Robertson on the forecheck, tracking the puck, winning races and successfully swaying battles. Those are the kinds of things coaches look for.

A lot of times with skilled players, if they aren’t producing, they are borderline useless on the ice. That isn’t the case with Robertson. If he’s not producing, he’s his team’s best forechecker, he’s using his stick to make key plays, he’s winning races to gain possession, and doing all the things you otherwise need to be successful.

That kind of consistent maximum effort will get a ton of opportunities and a spot on the coach’s good list (see Zach Hyman).

Pros/Cons of his Game

When it comes to his talent, Robertson’s shot is his best attribute. He has one of those shots that makes a different kind of noise when it hits the iron or the glass. It’s what scouts call, “an NHL calibre shot.”

Robertson is a legitimate scoring threat from just above the circles. The type of shot he has in his repertoire is becoming increasingly rare for forwards nowadays: a one-timer.

More than a few times last year, Robertson got himself into a spot where he activated his hips and one-timed the puck to the back of the net before the goalie was ever there. In the Leafs’ first prospect game, he ripped a no-doubt-about-it, one-timer that is NHL quality to the back of the net. Even when he doesn’t score, Robertson has a knack for getting through, as he manned the point on the Petes PP, last season. Getting a one-timer through is challenging with the shot-blocking mentality, if Robertson can do that at an NHL level, it will add an element the Leafs power play does not have.

In the compilation of goals below, my personal favourite is one vs Sudbury where he takes the pass on the rush and fires a slap shot from the top of the circle, in full stride.

The other shot type you see in that video is his curl and drag snapshot. The curl and drag part isn’t always used, but the common theme is his release point. Whether he’s curl and dragging, or flat out firing it, it flies off his sick with incredible accuracy.

The mix of Robertson’s release and accuracy are what makes his shot the weapon that it is. The accuracy is gained through consistently working on hitting certain spots. The power, however, is all in the technique. It was also on full display in the Leafs’ first prospect game, as Robertson accepted the pass, pulled it in, and ripped it by the goalie, all in one swift motion. It was a thing of art.

If you watch the compilation of his shots, you’ll notice two things. First, Robertson pressures downward on the puck, creating the torque. The second is that he really activates his hips.

The torque on the stick creates the whipping motion of the shaft, which increases power. Pressuring downward on the stick creates pressure on the blade, and gives the ability to increase power on the shot, no matter what part of the blade the puck is released from. The curl and drag probably looks familiar to you due to the fact that Auston Matthews uses it consistently.

The purpose of the curl and drag is to change the angle the puck is released at. Goalies are taught to square themselves to the puck, so if you quickly move the puck and release it from a different angle, the goalie is no longer square. The quick movement gives the shooter more net to shoot at, which is why sometimes, you see goalies freeze.

If you watch his releases in the video, you’ll notice that the goalies are late reacting. This tells me that Robertson’s release is very difficult to pick up and read off the blade. This is likely related to his curl and drag and how the puck flies off Robertson’s blade. That is very common among NHL goal scorers; the same is said about Matthews, Kessel, Seguin, and Mike Hoffman. Granted, these are OHL goalies, but scoring at 0.5 goals/game in the OHL, in your draft year is nothing to shake your head at.

No matter your age, if you are freezing goalies, quickly changing angles, and firing the puck with that kind of authority, it becomes a transferable skill. I would expect an uptick in scoring this season, meaning 45 goals over 68 games (0.66 G/GP) would be a strong season. Considering his age, I’m not sure Robertson makes the USA World Junior team, but a strong start should get him an invite to camp (he showed well at the Summer Showcase).

Any way you slice it, Robertson’s shot is transferable to the NHL. He may not always have the time to curl and drag, but he’s shown he gets the same power without it. Add the slap shot and one-timer into the equation, and he’s got the NHL’s most coveted tool: the ability to score goals.

Skating

The next thing we’re going to evaluate is his skating.

Robertson has great feet, and by that, I mean he’s explosive and agile. Many players with great hockey sense can pick off pucks, but don’t have the gear to make it a breakaway scenario. Robertson has that gear.

When we look at the video, we’ll notice two things. First, his ability to pick pucks clean off sticks is very good. It is very Mark Stone-esque. The next thing, and it is a difference maker, is how quickly Robertson reaches full speed once he picks the puck up. Those players are moving in the other direction most times, but by the time the defender reacts, Robertson is long gone, with time to make a move on the goalie.

In his OT winner vs Hamilton, Robertson goes from below his goal line to dangling the goalie in ~6 seconds. Not only did he beat his man up the ice, but he also beat everyone up the ice, and handily.

The next step in Robertson’s development will be using his explosiveness to target defenders. How? Well, if he skates in a lower gear to draw defenders in, then explodes by them, he’s going to create a ton of scoring chances and draw a lot of penalties. That’s a progression I’d like to see him develop because with the NHL calling more obstruction penalties (except interference), that becomes more difficult to defend.

The other part of his skating is his agility.

In the video, notice how Robertson has a very wide base. This allows him to use his edges and change directions quickly. Being in that wide base lessens the power you can generate from each stride, but when Robertson uses the wider base, he isn’t striding, he’s looking to make a play.

When looking at the first clip against Barrie, Robertson picks up the loose puck, quickly realizes he has no path to the net. He turns his skates three times within a single second to shake the defender. Against the boards, he uses the mohawk manoeuvre to skate to space at the blue line, without taking his eyes off the play. In doing this, Robertson puts himself in a position to look for passing lanes and make the pass, if a lane opens. Had he just crossed over and skated towards the blue line, he would’ve had his back to the play.

These foot movements, all within a single puck possession, demonstrate the type of agility needed to be an effective forechecker (see clip vs. Kingston), and create space from defenders to protect the puck. With Robertson’s small stature, being an agile skater is vital. He needs to be shifty to avoid getting hit, similar to Alex DeBrincat, Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau and Mitch Marner, in order to be successful.

Areas of Improvement

There are a few next steps for Robertson. Logically, his production needs an uptick. He’s already scored a hat trick this pre-season and from what I’ve seen, his skating has improved over the summer. Robertson’s first few steps are more powerful, he doesn’t empty-calorie skate as much, taking direct routes and getting to the middle more. That’s a positive sign.

This season, Robertson needs to continue his consistent effort level, but he needs to improve his production consistency, as well. He has to be a key driver of play, whether that’s in the form of creating chances, scoring goals or breaking up plays on defence.

Robertson clearly has the attention of teams when it comes to his shot, they respect it. Using that to his advantage by drawing defenders in and moving the puck to his teammates in space will allow him to make the players around him, better. This will be a key offensive progression for him, as it would force defenders to respect the pass, not allowing them to cheat towards the shot.

Another progression I’d like to see from Robertson is for him to become a go-to penalty killer. With his tenacity, puck tracking ability and skating, I think he’s got all the tools to be really effective. I’m also a big believer in using your best players on the penalty kill. We’ve seen examples in the video that he picks pucks clean off defender’s sticks, can explode the other way, and reads plays very well. Using him on the penalty kill would add a threat that teams would have to account for, and it would make Robertson more well rounded.

Best/Worst Case Scenario

The best-case scenario for Nick Robertson is two-fold.

If he happens to end his growth spurt around six feet tall, with his skating and skill, he’ll likely produce at ~70 points a season. Even if he doesn’t grow, Robertson will be strong on puck pursuits, a key cog on the power play, and hit ~65 points.

Growing means NHL coaches are more likely to trust him in the corners (the way Babcock trusts Hyman), so Robertson may get a chance to play on a top line one day. His shot will give the Leafs another scoring threat off the rush — and from anywhere in the offensive zone, honestly — while his tenacious puck pursuit will allow him to contribute on puck retrievals while developing into a dangerous penalty killer (think Brad Marchand).

If Robertson hits his ceiling, expect him to be a key secondary scoring threat behind the big four. Even if he doesn’t reach the ceiling, Robertson likely finds himself on the second power-play unit, and the third line, with the expectation of ~45 points.

With the way the league is going, Robertson’s worst-case scenario is that he doesn’t find a way to use his skill and produce. However, because of his forechecking ability and puck possession, he can contribute in the role of a poor man’s Brendan Gallagher; a speedy forechecker who wins puck races, gets to the middle of the ice and, with his shot, scores 15 goals.

Outlook

The biggest “maybe” for Robertson is whether or not he can grow to a similar in size as his brother.

If he does, while maintaining his agility and explosiveness, it becomes a conversation of whether Robertson can be a top-line player rather than one destined for the middle-six. If he doesn’t, I think a realistic expectation for Robertson is a 40-50 scorer who contributes to both special teams and is a coach’s dream with his effort level.

The NHL is trending towards the smaller player, so as long as he builds on his offensive game and makes himself a passing and shooting threat, he will be difficult to defend. Robertson has the potential to be a home run for the Leafs, it all hinges on how he develops. I’m sure, with him and Der-Arguchinstev playing on a line together, the Leafs development staff will be keeping a close eye on their small “twins” in Peterborough.