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Photo Credit: Nick Barden

The 2021 Top 20 Leafs Prospects: #2 Nick Robertson

Coming second on this year’s Top 20 Leafs Prospects list is last year’s #1, Nicholas Robertson.

Robertson, who torched the Ontario Hockey League for more than a goal-per-game in 2019-20, came into the 2020-21 season with a lot of hype and excitement surrounding him. Leafs fans were encouraged to see him keep his head above water in his first NHL stint as he joined the Leafs for their play-in series against Columbus.

Evaluating Robertson’s 2020-21 campaign was challenging, as he had a tough time stringing together long stretches of play between injuries, the Marlies’ COVID hiatus, and spending time watching the Leafs from the press box. When he played, his talent was still noticeable, the work ethic was still abundantly apparent, and he still showed a knack for blowing pucks past goaltenders. However, he played just 27 games of professional hockey last year, which did not give us much runway to work with to assess his progression.

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Position: Left Forward

Age: 19 (20 on September 11)

Height: 5’9

Weight: 164 lbs

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Drafted: 53rd Overall, 2019 NHL Draft by The Toronto Maple Leafs

2020-21 Teams: Toronto Marlies, AHL (21GP) | Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL (6GP)

2020 Prospect Ranking: #1

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Overview

Robertson, an undersized forward at 5-foot-9, was selected midway through the second round by the Leafs in the 2019 draft off the strength of a point-per-game season (27G-28A-55P in 54GP) with the Peterborough Petes. The pick was regarded as solid value for the Leafs at the time, and just another example of a first round talent sliding down the draft board due to his size.

The Robertson hype train really took off in his Draft+1 season, where he scored the same number of goals as he had points in the previous season — in five less games. Robertson finished the season with an obscene stat line of 55G-31A-86P in 49GP, leading the OHL in goal scoring as an 18 year old and earning himself a First All-Star Team nod. The Maple Leafs took notice and rewarded Robertson with four playoff games in the pandemic playoffs of August 2020, in which he scored his first NHL goal against Columbus.

The 2020-21 season was a weird year for Robertson. Let’s spell out what happened in bullet form:

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  • 1/13: Robertson begins the season with the Leafs
  • 1/16: Robertson makes his regular season debut in the Leafs’ third game of the season, playing 2:20 before having to leave with a knee injury
  • 1/21: Placed on LTIR
  • 2/13: Activated off LTIR, sent to Marlies
  • 2/15 to 3/3: Robertson plays 10 games for Marlies, putting up 2G-7A-9P
  • 3/3: Suffers oblique injury
  • 3/31: Returns to Marlies lineup
  • 3/31 to 4/10: Robertson plays four games for Marlies, putting up 1G-0A-1P
  • 4/12: Recalled by Leafs on emergency basis
  • 4/12 to 4/13: Robertson plays two games for Leafs, putting up 0G-0A-0P
  • 4/14: Placed on NHL COVID Protocol list due to his proximity to Marlies, who had a COVID breakout
  • 4/15: Removed from NHL COVID Protocol list
  • 4/15 to 4/20: Robertson plays three games for Leafs, putting up 0G-1A-1P
  • 4/20 to 4/28: Scratched for three consecutive games
  • 4/29: Sent to Marlies
  • 5/1 to 5/12: Robertson plays 7 games for Marlies, putting up 2G-4A-6P
  • 5/14: Suffers a concussion after this awkward fall, misses final 5 games of AHL regular season

With no Calder Cup playoffs in the AHL in 2021 and the Leafs leaf-ing their way out of the first round on 5/31, Robertson’s season ended. He finished the season with 5G-11A-16P in 21GP for the Marlies and 0G-1A-1P in 6GP for the Leafs. Despite his chaotic season, Robertson’s 0.76 points-per-game placed him 6th among Draft+2 AHLers, which is impressive considering he went 30, 28, and 11 days between games during the season.

The Tale of the Tape

Despite the tumultuous nature of this season, Robertson still showed us that he can absolutely rip a puck. Who remembers this absolute bomb during the Leafs’ Blue & White game in January?

Another thing you may notice is that Robertson isn’t solely a bar-down sniper. In fact, one of his go-to shots is hard and low, as seen in his first AHL goal:

The same shot selection is seen here, victimizing Garrett Sparks:

In addition to a lethal shot, Robertson possesses an excellent combination of speed and stickhandling. Look at how he moves laterally to get the zone entry here. Other players would have continued up the same-side boards after receiving the pass, only to get closed off before hitting the blue line.

And here he is, fearlessly hurtling through the neutral zone against the Jets for a shot on goal:

Robertson was used often on the penalty kill during his Peterborough Petes days, and actually ended up scoring 8 of his 55 goals in 2019-20 while down a man. He is an extremely aggressive penalty killer and loves to pressure the points to force the puck carrier into panic plays. It is to be determined if this gets coached out of him at the NHL level since specialty teams coaches love their structure, but occurrences like below are not uncommon when Robertson is given free reign to hound puck on the PK.

All-in, Robertson is a versatile three-situation (EV – PP – SH) threat who may be able to replace some of the tenacious, never-say-die attitude that walked out the door this summer in Zach Hyman, while providing a needed scoring threat from the wing.

What the Scouts are Saying

Corey Pronman from The Athletic had this to say about Robertson just a few months after being drafted by the Leafs:

Robertson’s toolkit is great and he has the ability to take over a shift. He’s got the hands to dangle at a high level, and despite not having a lot of assists, his vision is of the highest grades. I may be biased because I’ve been in attendance for some of his highlight reel assists, but I do think his hockey IQ is elite. He also has a great shot and can pick corners from long-distance. He’s small and has an awkward skating stride, but he competes very hard and earns the praise of any coach he plays for because of his work ethic. The size/skating and injuries the past two seasons are concerns (I’ve had NHL scouts express durability questions on him), but from watching Robertson a lot the last year, I’m on board with him becoming a future top NHL player.

Pronman then followed that up with this commentary on Robertson’s skating in an article published just before Robertson was about to make his playoff debut:

If you told me in a few years that Robertson had underwhelmed and not become a true top-six scoring threat in the NHL, I would bet his skating was the main reason why.

NHL scouts were concerned about his skating, which in combination with his size is why he was selected in the second round.

Robertson’s stride is a little unorthodox, he doesn’t get the proper full extension you want from each stride, he can look hunched over and it can prevent him from being explosive with the puck.

I don’t think the stride is consistently like that, but it does break down more than you like. I do see Robertson keep his stride clean at times, and when he does that, he shows above-average quickness and ability to pull away from checks.

Jonas Siegel wrote today about what Robertson needs to work on this season in order to crack the Leafs:

One such area [for improvement] might be both how he utilizes physical play and also approaches opposition physicality. He’s said might have underestimated the physicality the AHL brings. As such, I wonder if Robertson plays with more of an edge in development camp and whether there are any differences in how he manages the physical play around him.

“Before I go to the NHL eventually, (the AHL) can teach me how to not get away from physicality but manage it,” he said in April.

Expectations and Moving Forward

One of the biggest criticisms of Robertson this season was that he was too easily muscled off the puck by bigger, stronger opponents. Adjusting to the physical rigours of playing against grown men can be difficult for young players, especially ones of Robertson’s size. He will need to get stronger. Luckily for Leafs fans, Robertson’s on-ice work ethic is matched by his off-ice commitment to physical fitness. You can bet your bottom dollar that if the Leafs have asked him to build strength in certain areas that he has worked his tail off this summer to do just that.

Robertson has the shot, the vision, the stickhandling, and the compete to basically guarantee him a future as an NHLer, most likely as a top-six scoring winger. Think Alex DeBrincat’s offensive acumen fused with Yanni Gourde’s relentless work ethic. He would be an excellent option in the bumper spot on a powerplay, using his lethal one-timer from the slot.

What could trip him up? Aside from the aforementioned physical strength issues, Barb Underhill may want to make a few tweaks to his skating stride, which has been called awkward. While Robertson is a very fast, waterbug-like skater in the vein of a Viktor Arvidsson, a couple of fixes to his mechanics may unlock some additional explosiveness and elusiveness, which combined with his excellent hands may make him extremely hard to contain.

Another thing that could get in the way of him reaching his true potential may be his durability: getting injured for long stretches three times in four months during his first season of professional hockey does cause worry. Robertson is a fearless attacker, which puts him in dangerous spots from time to time.

For 2021-22, Robertson may be best served playing the bulk of the season in the AHL, receiving 20 minutes a night while being the Marlies’ go-to weapon on offense. As it currently stands, the Leafs have an abundance of NHL wingers who will be battling for spots in training camp, and Robertson is one of the few who is waiver exempt, so starting the season with the big club seems unlikely. The hope is that Robertson can stay out of the infirmary and build some momentum. A point-per-game season in the AHL would not be out of the realm of possibility, and should be the goal.

2021-22 will be a huge year for Robertson, and how he continues to progress in the AHL will be hugely informative of what he can achieve in the NHL.