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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Debut Review: Nick Robertson

The unknown often brings intrigue and there has been plenty of intrigue surrounding the Maple Leafs greatest unknown, 18 year old forward Nick Robertson. Fresh off a dazzling season with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, Robertson was deservedly invited to compete for a spot in the Leafs playoff lineup.

Handed little more than an opportunity, he began camp near the bottom of the depth chart but his efforts were rewarded as the practices and scrimmages wore on. He spent the latter part of phase 3 skating alongside Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen on the Leafs third line, a spot that was ripe for the taking with Andreas Johnsson still on the shelf.

Sheldon Keefe knows what he’s going to get out of his big stars, and he should have a pretty good idea what he’s going to get out of guys like Frederik Gauthier and Pierre Engvall as well. Robertson, however, is something of an X-factor. There’s no doubting his talent or his potential, but it has to translate to the NHL if he’s going to have a spot in the Leafs lineup when they begin play against Columbus this weekend. And fast.

After going up against his teammates for the last several weeks, Robertson finally got his first chance to make an impression against NHL opponents on Tuesday night and he certainly didn’t look out of place. Keefe and the rest of the Leafs staff likely would have preferred to see Robertson out on the ice a bit more than the 10:19 he played, but the amount of penalties in this game made it difficult.

Despite limited minutes, Robertson was able to have a positive impact on the game. He led all Leafs forwards with a 75 CF% and had the second best xGF% at 86.16%, tallying an assist in the process.

First Period

It’s no secret that Robertson’s shot is a weapon and he didn’t waste any time trying to fire it. On his first shift of the game, he remained on the strong side of the puck as a battle ensued along the boards and pulled the puck free before firing a shot that was deflected out of play.

With Kapanen and Kerfoot applying pressure on the forecheck, Robertson effectively filled the F3 role in the offensive zone enabling him to get back and use his body to break up the play when it transitioned back to the Leafs zone. His quick feet and high motor make him effective tracking the play back toward his own end.

Aside from his place on the third line, Robertson also earned a look on the Leafs second power play unit. He curled back to lead the breakout on this play, skating the puck out of the defensive zone before dishing it off in the neutral zone and getting open for his second shot attempt of the game:

Perhaps a bit overzealous on the forecheck, Robertson took a holding penalty after the Canadiens defender angled him off the puck down low. One of these won’t doom him and it wasn’t the most egregious infraction, but he knows that he can’t be taking penalties 200 feet away from his own net. If he loses body position, he has to use his feet to get it back.

Robertson almost lit the lamp before the first period was out. After the Montreal defender fell at the blue line creating an odd man rush, Kapanen found him trailing the play and made a slick drop pass into the slot. Robertson made a move around the sprawling defenceman but the puck rolled off of his backhand with Carey Price at his mercy.

His final shift of the period was mostly uneventful but Robertson’s speed was still disruptive enough to force a turnover. With the Canadiens winding up to transition through the neutral zone, he used his speed to pressure the defenceman causing him to cough up the puck for Robertson to sling it back to his own blue line and regroup.

Second Period

Robertson’s first couple shifts of the second period came at the tail end of a pair of Leafs power plays and while they didn’t generate much, he was able to make a nice touch pass to set Rielly up with a shot from the point on the second one.

The Leafs third line did a good job of sustaining pressure in the Canadiens zone and keeping their feet moving on the cycle. Robertson showed a willingness to battle for space in front and the awareness to bail out and provide an outlet when pressure was closing on the puck carrier.

That tenacity would pay off later in the period after Robertson gained the offensive zone and chipped it around his man. He won the battle for the loose puck and sent it down low to Kerfoot before getting it back and dishing to Rielly at the point, picking up an assist on Kerfoot’s 2nd goal of the night.

The point shot found the back of the net but look at how Robertson immediately begins heading to the net for a potential rebound after passing it to Rielly:

Third Period

His line spent much of their ice time in the opposing end but they found themselves hemmed in their own zone early in the third period. They did well to keep the play on the outside and once again, Robertson used his quick feet and explosiveness to close on the point man forcing a rushed shot that he deflected towards Andersen for an easy save.

They began their next shift in the defensive zone as well, but were quick to break out after Kerfoot won the draw. Robertson flew threw the middle and was the first Leaf in on the forecheck. This was a great sequence for the entire line but it all starts with the speed and tenacity of Robertson:

Though he more than held his own throughout most of the game, there were times when Robertson was outmuscled along the boards but that’s to be expected of any 18 year old player.

In what was perhaps a telling sign, Sheldon Keefe rewarded his rookie with one final shift as the clock ticked down. With his team defending a lead in the final minute and the Canadiens net empty, Robertson found himself on the ice with Auston Matthews and William Nylander. He defended the high slot as Matthews battled for the puck along the boards and, as it often does for the game’s most skilled players, the puck found Robertson’s stick and was out of the Leafs zone in short order.

After the game, it seemed as though Kerfoot was more than happy with the performance from his young left winger. Robertson has put his best foot forward throughout camp and built off of that with a solid exhibition debut against the Leafs’ longtime rival.

Kyle Dubas said that Robertson would be given every opportunity to make the team, and though those opportunities have been limited in these bizarre circumstances, he’s made good on them to this point.

Questions have persisted regarding Robertson’s ability to adjust to the pace and physicality of the NHL but he looked comfortable in his first appearance with the Leafs, answering some of the unknown and adding to the intrigue along the way.

It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from a single game but it’s safe to say Nick Robertson has earned himself another.

 

(Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com)