Asset management and Nick Robertson: do you play him or trade him?

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
6 months ago
Nick Robertson is potentially sitting for a third consecutive game. (Though a flu bug might change that.) Admittedly it is hard to worry about that when the Leafs are winning but it’s also matter of making the 22-year-old is still getting opportunities to show what he can do, even if that is to potentially showcase him to other teams.
The thing with Nick Robertson is that while he isn’t Calder eligible, he very much is still a rookie. He’s made his guest appearances with the Leafs in the previous three seasons, but never has he exceeded 15 games, and by his offensive numbers he’s absolutely take a positive step forward from his 3 goals and 4 assists in his previous 31 games to his 5 goals, 6 assists in 24 games this season. That production is nearly identical to Ridly Greig’s 4 goals, 11 points in 25 games as a 21-year-old. Granted Greig is a centre and can be played more universally than Robertson, who is also a year older, but the point remains that Robertson comfortably fits into the list of top 20 point totals for rookies, if he was eligible. The same being true if we were looking exclusively at goal scoring and if Robertson is going to have sustained NHL success, it will be as a goal scorer.
A more local point of comparison to rookies comes closer to home and looking at points per game. Matthew Knies has been averaging 0.4 points per game, playing with Auston Matthews and either Mitch Marner or William Nylander, getting 14:30 minutes a night while Robertson has been averaging 0.44 points per game and averaging 10:28 minutes a night primarily playing with Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok. That isn’t to undersell Matthew Knies and suggest that a .04 point per game difference closes the gap on all of the things Matthew Knies does that don’t show up in the boxscore, but the point here is to emphasize that Robertson has not only been a decent performer this season for the Leafs, his progress mirrors that of the best rookies.
If you compare Nick Robertson to his draft class, he’s 20th in points and 18th in goals. As much as Leafs fans and the organization might have attached higher expectations on Nick Robertson, he is doing pretty darn good.
At 5v5 this season, Nick Robertson has the 39th highest points/60 at 5v5 (2.53), and 38th best goals/60 (1.27) in the league. That certainly seems like what you’d want from a player that is on the Leafs to provide affordable secondary offence. And while there are challenges to Robertson’s game when the Leafs don’t have the puck and his game borders on being one dimensional, it is an important dimension and a hard one to replace at $797k cap hit.
Understandably, Sheldon Keefe and the Leafs get frustrated if the offence is streaky and the 15 game break between goals and the 5 game pointless streak raise questions about whether Robertson should be in the lineup or not. It just seemed odd that it was after Robertson had two goals in his past three games that he sat in favour of Pontus Holmberg, who absolutely does need his opportunity to show if he can be a fit for the Leafs bottom six as well. Arguably a platoon between Holmberg, Kampf, and McMann seems like it would make more sense than pulling Robertson out but Nick missing a game here or there isn’t really an issue, it just starts becoming one when it is three in a row.
Toronto needs to find ways for Robertson to play as it benefits the team in both of the two ways, they should be viewing him, as deep discount secondary scoring asset and as potential trade chip. Which brings us to the next question, what is the better utilization of Robertson.
In the long term, it seems that most people would see Robertson as a potential trade chip. He’s established that he can be good, he’s young and there is still a lot of upside that can be developed, and there is bound to be at least one or two teams out there that feels they can maximize his potential. As much as the Leafs development system is strong and has an excellent track record of getting the most out of their prospects and reclamation projects, it has always felt like there is a disconnect with Robertson and a change of scenery is probably the right course of action. Couple that with Robertson’s injury history and Sheldon Keefe’s reluctance to put Robertson in positions where he can be successful and instead falling back on the trope of having to earn your spot in the roster and there is likely a separation between the Leafs and Robertson destined for the near future.
That being said, there needs to be some consideration to the short term and how much do the Leafs need a secondary goal scorer who makes less than $800k? You could make a strong case that as soon as Robertson departs the Leafs immediately need to start looking for more secondary scoring and if they do that, can the Leafs make it work from a salary cap perspective? There are options out there, but it is rare to find someone who combines affordability, point production that mirrors Robertson’s, and a cap hit that doesn’t provide additional burden to the Leafs in a rental player. The best option of who might be available is Sean Monahan and it is questionable if Brad Treliving is heading down that road again.
In the meantime, the Leafs need to find a way to find a way of elevating Robertson, either to maximize his value in trade or find the right fit for him in the Leafs lineup. If things have become stagnant with Max Domi or the duo is just too much of a defensive liability, the Leafs need to find the fit for Robertson, even if that is placing him on the fourth line but committing to some offensive zone faceoff reps with either Matthews or Tavares. Whether the Leafs trade him or keep him, making the most of Robertson makes more sense than scratching him.
Data from Capfriendly, Natural Stat Trick, and NHL.com

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