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Nick Robertson is the Leafs top prospect

What a strange journey it’s been. We’ve come a long way since we started these prospect rankings back in November with William Villeneuve grabbing the #20 spot. We’ve taken a look at a lot of promising young players who have the potential to push for NHL jobs, take on role player type duties, and some that are swing for the fences type players. Now here we are with the most established blue chip on the team, Nick Robertson.

Robertson edged out Sandin, and Amirov, who both received 1st place votes, but an electrifying year in the OHL coupled with his involved with the Leafs during their brief return to play. On the other side of things, Robertson did receive one 4th place vote from one of our writers, who saw him behind Amirov, Liljegren, and Sandin, in that order. So while he certainly hold Robertson in high regards, he just sees others as potentially more impactful, and like many of our rankings that exclude a Matthews or Marner to rank, there is plenty of room for debate on who is the best.

RANK GRADE NHL Readiness
1 A 0-1 YEARS

Position: LW
Age: 19
Height: 5’9″
Weight: 164 pounds
Shoots: Left
Drafted: 2019 second round, 53rd overall

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What kind of player is Robertson?

Well…the best kind. Robertson is a pure goal scorer, and has the hardware to show for it. His creativity with the puck and his quick release are the reasons that he’s been so successful at the OHL level, and shown initial promise in the NHL as well, but there is so much more to Robertson’s game than just goals. (They are the best part of his game, but there are elements that lead to the goals as well.)

Robertson is an aggressive forechecker. He’s 5’9, but apparently no one has told him that. He’s by no means a punishing hitter, but rather a player who is comfortable taking the hit in order to make the necessary play, and either earn on maintain possession for his team. He’s frequently the first player into the offensive zone, and plays rather high in his zone for the opportunities to either breakout or force an odd man rush, because of this, we shouldn’t expect too much of his defensively.

The combination of speed, skill, and willingness to go into the tough areas of the ice is also going to lead to Robertson drawing a number of penalties, this is assuming the NHL will now start calling penalties when Leafs players are targeted. Robertson, of course, is perfectly capable of burning teams on the powerplay as well, and frequently uses the faceoff dots as his place to set up for one timers.

When playing high in his own zone, Robertson has been reliable at stepping into the shooting lanes, but has played tightly to the boards, reducing the likelihood of cross ice passes. When he does venture deeper into his own zones, Robertson is helpful for puck races, but isn’t strong enough to win most puck battles in the corner. In short, he was drafted for his offence, but isn’t completely disinterested in playing in his own zone, it’s just not his greatest strength.

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By the Numbers

SEASON TEAM LEAGUE GP G A P
2017-18  Peterborough Petes OHL 62 15 18 33
2018-19  Peterborough Petes OHL 54 27 28 55
2019-20  Peterborough Petes “A” OHL 46 55 31 86
 USA U20 WJC-20 5 2 3 5

Are those numbers good? Those look good. Yes, that was 55 goals in 46 games. Yes, he was a point per game player in last year’s World Junior tournament, and yes (not pictured) he had a goal in the four games he played for the Leafs against Columbus this summer. His outputs are good and he’s good, though like what was mentioned above, no one is going to mistake him for a playmaker.

Of the 55 goals scored by Robertson, 34 of the came at even strength. Amazingly, 8 of them came short handed as well, so Robertson was nearly a goal per game player before you factor in his 13 power play goals, which almost seem underwhelming compared to his other outputs. Oddly enough, it was the power play where Robertson was the more capable playmaker, picking up 15 assists.

Pick224 puts Robertson’s estimated time on ice per game over 22 minutes in the OHL, and as you can tell by his shorthanded goal total, he was definitely playing in all situations.

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As I mentioned above, Robertson is quite partial to shooting from the high slot to faceoff dot area, and it’s quite clear he lines up on the left side at even strength, but plays his off wing on the power play. The majority of goals around the crease come from rushes, and not deflections or rebounds and as you can see he was very rarely taking point shots.

Robertson was on the ice for 63 even strength goals for the Petes this year, and was scored against 42 times, good for 60% Goals For%. Clearly the offensive success was driving that percentage.

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What’s Next for Nick Robertson?

What’s next for Nick Robertson might be the most challenging question in the organization. Or the simplest depending on how you look at it.

In a time of bubbles, Nick Robertson might be the most bubbly person whoever bubbled. He could go to the World Juniors, but given the end date of the tournament and his need to isolate for eight days prior to joining the Leafs, he’d miss the Leafs training camp, something not ideal for player who has a realistic shot at a roster spot.

He’s ineligible for the AHL, but there isn’t a whole lot left for him to accomplish in the OHL, assuming they have a season, not to mention whether it will be contact hockey or not.

He’s talented enough to grab a spot on the Leafs roster, but there are no shortage of other players vying for the role that Robertson is. Vesey, Simmonds, Barabanov, Spezza could easily be the starting wingers in the bottom six forward group, as could Joey Anderson and if you really want to expand the candidate list, so could Pierre Engvall and Denis Malgin.

It’s not an easy path to the NHL this year, or at least a regular spot on a NHL roster this year, but given the unique nature of this season, perhaps the obvious choice is to keep Robertson in the NHL in some capacity, and make it work.

There’s reason to be optimistic about Robertson, and it’s easy to see how Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe will have to make a tough decision about someone else to make room for Robertson. He’s already shown the ability to work well with Alex Kerfoot, and add some offence to the 3rd line, and there’s no reason to believe that he couldn’t challenge players like Hyman or Mikheyev for their top six roles somewhere down the line, if his adjustment to the NHL goes smoothly.

The optimistic view for Robertson is the fun one to look at, but there is the other less likely possibility that Robertson will fail to impress in training camp, and Toronto will either struggle to get him into games or find ice time for him in the NHL year this year, in which case sending Robertson back to the OHL would wind up being the unfortunate Plan B.

Personally, Robertson, a shoot first player who needs sheltering seems tailor made for playing with someone like Joe Thornton. Thornton’s size, experience, and playmaking make up for a number of Robertson’s present shortcomings, and there’s little doubt that Robertson’s quickness will compliment Thornton as well. It might be more likely to see them working together in a fourth line setting than putting Robertson back with Kerfoot.

Finding Robertson some special teams time will also be important, and giving him the opportunity on the second power play unit seems like a good start. It will also be interesting to see if Sheldon Keefe taps into Robertson’s penalty killing experience, and utilizes him on the secondary unit there as well. Robertson was successful in the power kill role, and with Kasperi Kapanen out, Robertson might be the best candidate to replace him.

A good year from Robertson is something that would give the Leafs a ton of flexibility in the 2021-22 season. With a number of depth players up for free agency, and the 2021 season seemingly being the final chance for the big four forwards to be successful together, knowing that Robertson is a top six forward going forward would be a huge win. And with Amirov following closely behind him, Robertson needs to take advantage of this head start to secure his role.

Considering the Leafs went into their 2019 draft without a first round pick and then traded their 2020 1st to Carolina shortly after that, we all needed Nick Robertson to be a player who felt like a first round pick. His 2019-20 season delivered on that, and more. Now we’ll see if he can keep it up.

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