Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
History says the Leafs would be foolish to trade Nick Robertson right now
By Alex Hobson1 month ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs have had lots of ups and downs throughout the first few months of the season, leaving a ton of people speculating whether the Leafs should buy or sell at the deadline this season. While things certainly haven’t been where the Leafs want them to be at this stage of the season, I think everyone knows deep down at their core that selling at the trade deadline right after signing two of your superstars to franchise-record contracts would be a bad look.
That being said, buying at the deadline doesn’t necessarily equal trading for six new players like the Leafs did last year. Between the limited assets to work with in 2023-24 and the somewhat underwhelming general performance of the team so far, it doesn’t look like a year that will warrant a trade deadline for the ages.
With only one first-round pick to work with and not exactly a plethora of needle-moving prospects they can afford to part with, forward Nick Robertson’s name has been brought up in trade rumours. Despite some decent production in the NHL this year, with seven goals and 13 points in 27 games, the Leafs’ second-round pick from 2019 has had a hard time sticking in the lineup due to his undeveloped defensive play. Between the one-dimensional play and durability issues in the past, Robertson has had several roadblocks preventing him from establishing a full-time role with the Leafs in the past.
All of these factors scream perfect trade candidate – 22 years old, inconsistency when in the lineup, injury issues. It’s not the first time his name has been suggested regarding a fresh start somewhere else and it probably won’t be the last. After all, he hasn’t been able to establish himself as a full-time member of the team yet, so why wouldn’t he be a trade chip if he still has value?
I’m not necessarily saying the Leafs shouldn’t EVER move on from Robertson – as I said, they’re in a window of cup contention with Auston Matthews and William Nylander now both locked up long-term. If a trade package comes together in the off-season that gives the Leafs a legitimate upgrade on their roster, there shouldn’t be much off the table. Right now, though, with the Leafs just barely clinging on to third place in the Atlantic Division, miss me with that idea.
One aspect of Robertson’s development that frequently gets overlooked is how quickly he developed. We’re not talking about a guy who’s into his mid-twenties here. He’s only 22 years old, and despite this, he’s in his fourth season of getting into NHL games with the Leafs (fifth if you include the play-in series against Columbus in the bubble). Although the success hasn’t translated to the NHL yet, we’re talking about a guy who immediately outgrew the OHL (he scored 55 goals in 46 games for 86 points in his final OHL season), and he’s also proven to have outgrown the AHL, with 57 points in 60 career games with the Toronto Marlies.
In fairness to the Leafs here, Robertson hasn’t really snatched an NHL job despite all of the intrigue from his performance in the OHL and AHL. While his 31 points in 64 NHL games to kick off his career are on par with where one might deem a mark for success, he never played more than 15 games with the Leafs in a single season before this year, falling victim to injury each time. Between his age, his injury luck, and the fact that he’s a second-round pick, it feels like he’s been here forever – but he hasn’t.
The Leafs have shot themselves in the foot by moving on from young players in the past. Trevor Moore had only 52 NHL games under his belt, only nine shy of Robertson, when the Leafs traded him to the Los Angeles Kings in a package for Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford. This year he has 20 goals and 32 points in 43 games as a 28-year-old. If you wanna go retro, go look at what Alex Steen did for the St. Louis Blues after the Leafs traded him for Lee Stempniak.
Even somebody like Michael Carcone, who the Leafs included as a sweetener to dump Nikita Zaitsev’s contract with the Ottawa Senators, is having a breakout year for the Arizona Coyotes with 15 goals and 41 points. It’s hard to blame the Leafs for this one, given Carcone spent time with three different organizations before settling with the Coyotes. His breakout year also didn’t come until age 28.
That said, though, the point remains that the Leafs have had issues with giving up on young players too quickly in the past. I get that you have to take those risks when you’re a contending team, but considering both the lack of younger players with term on the market this year, and the Leafs’ somewhat lacklustre performance this year, they would be foolish to knee-jerk their way into a trade involving Robertson. Depth scoring has been inconsistent this season, much like Robertson has, but overall, a young player hungry for opportunity and ice time is something that could benefit the Leafs more than trading him would.
Despite only playing in four games in the month of January, Robertson has scored in four of his last six games and finally earned some legitimate praise from head coach Sheldon Keefe following Sunday’s win over the Seattle Kraken.
While Pontus Holmberg has certainly played his way into the lineup at this point and doesn’t deserve to be the one scratched in favour of Robertson, it’s officially time for the Leafs to find a way to keep both of them in the lineup. The latter has found chemistry with Max Domi on the third line, and the former has skated anywhere between the first line and the fourth line.
The Leafs would be wise to keep Robertson, at least for the rest of the season, and if there’s a big trade to be made this offseason, they should certainly consider whatever options they have. But, right now, trading him would hurt them long-term and potentially short-term if the return doesn’t bring worthy results.
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